Chapter 3

We are who once we were,
but never again the same,
as the world changes do we,
and cycles pass without name,

rely not on man to alter his way,
nor on the individual to remain,
we ghosts are believed eternal,
yet even ageless,
I have changed.

– Writings of Theseus Moria, circa 410 E.R.

State Decay

Estae 7th, 647 E.R.

The room was lush yet stark, dripping with showy regal splendor, from the tapestries on the walls to elaborate carpets with floral and geometric patterns.  Fine rare vases held flowers along the walls, if their ancient cracked surfaces could bear water.  Others – often in prominent positions – were clearly too old and fragile for actual use.

A blond haired man with a soft olive complexion considered the priest pacing his quarters.  His expression was hard to read, but seemed perhaps concerned for the agitated older man.  The priest, Idolus, wore a grey robe, and had recently shorn his hair down to the skin.  This in itself was arguably an improvement, as he had been balding for years.  Still, it seemed part of a larger, more unnerving pattern.  One that included the way he was pacing frantically, his arms behind his back, his hands wringing fervently.

“Arlen, you must listen to me, she is the void itself I tell you,” Idolus implored more than said to his host.

“A wild half Sylvan thing, surely.  A young woman of erratic nature without question, but the void itself, Idolus?” Arlen almost seemed amused past the look of concern that took over his face.

“What happened on that mountain…that she fought the dragon…naked…that is the least of it,” Idolus stopped, spun on his heel, and stared at his companion.  “The very ground where we found her – the stone where she fell – it had been reduced to something like brittle clay beneath her.  Like the very substance of the rock had been corrupted.”

“Perhaps it was merely an odd property of the area?” Arlen offered.

“No, no, no,” Idolus refused.  “It was the same stone as everything else, but brittle, crumbled at a touch to a fine powder.  Like the loadstone of an enchanted fire lamp.  Laurel, the fool did not see it for what it was…and the way…she burned into my mind.  I cannot think of anything but her.  She is like a scar on the world.  I see her face in dreams amidst a sea of light…but her hair…it has turned something wild, and more unnatural than those cursed eyes of hers.  I feel something in my very bones at the thought of it.”

“We all stray to the thoughts of the flesh,” Arlen said consolingly.  “Even the strongest of us.”

“No,” Idolus snapped, and slammed his fist on a table, his eyes wild.  “I have found it in the Black Book.  I have felt it since the first time she touched my hand in the square.  The storm child walks among us, and she is the abyss, the void.  She will tear this world into oblivion.”

“Idolus,” Alren said firmly.  “She is just a girl.  A mage, a troubled child, yes, but harmless.  I have even consented to my wife’s wishes that Charles seek her favor.  If her sister remains missing, then she stands to inherit a great swath of the north.  My family could control two duchies, we could rival the King to reign in this land, and perhaps one day cast out the heretics.”

“Are you not listening?” Idolus all but screamed.  “She is not what she appears.  She is not.  If you tie yourself to her…I will have no part of it.”

“Please,” Arlen said measuredly, “old friend.  Find your senses.  We will watch her, but consider her sister too bares the same face.  Have you not possibly mistaken one for the other?”  He did not really consider that any more likely, but it seemed an easy way to cast doubt.  Normally he had high respect for Idolus, but his behavior had become slowly unstable for some time.  Arlen no longer trusted his judgement as he once had.  He worried if the ordeal with the dragon had broken the man for good.

Idolus sat down stiffly, and then wept.  “I do not know, but the world is wrong.  Something terrible is shifting.  I must consult my books, I must understand.  Do not let her be your undoing my friend.  Be cautious of this one.”

“I will,” Arlen said, and set his hand on Idolus’ arm.  His pity was honest, and what was more he thought little of Katrisha’s character.  “Do not think I trust her,” he offered.  “My son is erant, and I fear there is no bastion of correction left to send him too within Avrale.  Wesrook is a cesspool that my brother can barely restrain.  South Rook has fallen to that miserable man Perin…that they now call him, Duke…”  He seemed ill.

“So what?” Idolus said trying to recover himself.  “You have given up on your child?”

“I am attempting to make the best of many bad situations,” Arlen said.  “If the boy is to be corrupt, then I shall at least exploit it for the greater good.  If he can wed the wild creature, then there is at least potential to tame her, and use her dubious birthright to accomplish better things.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 13th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha picked at her plate idly, not even looking up at those seated around her at dinner.  To her left sat princess Maraline, as was often the case.  The princess considered the melancholy girl with some concern, and brushed back an auburn lock that had come loose.

“You really should eat,” Maraline offered.  “You’ll do your sister no favors starving yourself.”

Katrisha looked up, and seemed almost startled.  “Sorry,” she said, “merely lost in thought.”

“You have been quite a lot of late,” the young man to Maraline’s left offered.  “Though I dare say there is no blame to be had for such distraction.  Were any of my dear relatives missing for so long, let alone a twin…” he seemed quite affected by the thought.

“Quite so Adrien,” Maraline said, “though it does for me present some trouble.  I have been thinking to ask Katrisha to stand as my maid of honor, but if she is so distracted…”

“I think I could manage to focus,” Katrisha offered with only a touch of excitement, tinged with a hint of bewilderment, and her persistent malaise.  “Though I had no idea I was being considered.”

“We’ve always been quite amiable,” Maraline offered.

“We have,” Katrisha agreed.  “Still, I would think you to have closer friends than I.”

“My brother, of course, dear cousin Philip,” she nodded across the table to another young man, “but they are hardly maids.  I dare say we are closer than any of my other cousins, or than I am to any of my servants.  My mother’s efforts to find me proper handmaidens, ones I could call friend, have been…mixed.  Yet all this aside, truly, to have a dragon slayer at my side, few brides could be so honored.”

“Attempted,” Katrisha corrected awkwardly.

“Yes,” Maraline agreed, “but that is not quite the tale being told in many quarters.  Still, I think we can find more appropriate attire for you in the wedding party.”  She smiled a bit coyly.

“I should hope,” Katrisha agreed, with a mixture of humor and embarrassment.  “I would be honored if it is your wish.”

“Then it is settled,” Maraline smiled.  “Perhaps you might even catch the eye of an eligible young nobleman.”

“I should hope Laurel would dissuade any such interest,” Katrisha countered.  “Truly I agree with his current refrain.  I am far more trouble than I am worth.”

“Nonsense,” Maraline protested, “you are becoming quite lovely, and I dare say I would give my title to be as capable as you.”

“Capable of misadventure,” Philip cut in.

“Cousin!” Maraline snapped, aghast.

“I merely agree with the young lady,” Philip said in lieu of apology for his poorly considered jab.

“Surely not all young men long for delicate flowers?” Maraline questioned.  “Truly, I am such a prize – I will not deny – but if a young woman’s heart can flutter for a dashing man, why not a man’s for a fiery young lass?  Surely you are as delicate as I, Philip,” she said with some restrained amusement.

“Alas,” Philip countered, “my delicacy, prefers delicacy.  Though I do not deny the lady is lovely, and that her roguish nature is not without charm.  What of you Charles?  Want you mouse, or lion?”

Charles had been quiet, and seemed thoughtful when questioned.  “Though we have not been without our differences,” he answered diplomatically, “I do agree Katrisha has some admirable qualities, and among them a budding beauty.  I’m of mixed opinion on the affair with the dragon.  On the one hand foolish, on the other quite brave.”

“Perhaps,” Adrien began, “there is little difference between the two.  I’ve heard that our dear girl thought herself acting in the interest of her mentor.  So brave then, for acting against the better judgement of her own well being, which then some would label foolish.  Perspective.”

“Was that the reason?” Maraline asked.

Katrisha looked unhappy to answer, but felt she must.  “Yes.  A dream told me that Laurel would return dead, and Kiannae had the same vision.  In that dream we were here when he returned.  This told us that if we waited…still it was foolish.”

“And brave,” Adrien concluded.

“Agreed,” Charles laughed.  Katrisha gave him a funny look, but found his expression amiable.  She looked back to her plate.

“Now surely,” Maraline said, “you’ve some interest in a fine young man to wed?”

“I’ve not thought much on it,” Katrisha answered.  “Not in some time anyway.  Such daydreams were more my fancy when I was small, but I’ve had other interests with age.”

“How contrary,” Maraline shook her head, “that with the blooming of womanhood you have lost interest in love.  We must see if we cannot get someone to catch your eye then.  I’m sure if your heart was in it, your lovely charms could win any young man you wished.”

Katrisha gave Maraline a funny look.  It all seemed to her a very misplaced endeavor, but the compliment suiter her a little all the same.  If Marline, who had always seemed to her very pretty, thought she could have her pick, that surely was worth something.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 42nd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha blocked the sun from her eyes as she moved to exit the coach that had carried her, and the Princess for the last leg of their journey.  She had not been pleased that accepting a place as Maraline’s maid of honor had meant traveling to South Rook.  Her last visit had not gone entirely well.

It had been an ever shifting set of plans, but ultimately it was decided that the wedding should occur there, to ease the lingering tensions from the events that had displaced the former duke.  The reasoning – as it was explained – was that it must be perceived that South Rook gained a princess, not lost the heir to the seat.  All very political, and Katrisha could not disagree with the premise, though she prefered the comforts of home.

She surveyed South Rook, and looked up to the tower that loomed high above.  It hardly seemed any less grand than when she had been much younger.  To her surprise, Katrisha found Charles offering her a hand down, which only earned an odd look from her.  She slipped from the seat without accepting the hand, and landed with grace.  She nodded to him more challengingly than cordially, and stepped aside.

The princess for her part took his hand, and got down more carefully.  “I do adore South Rook,” Maraline declared as she looked around the city.

“That is fortunate,” Katirsha laughed, “since you are marrying the man destined to rule it.”

“It is certainly some comfort,” Maraline agreed, ”given I must leave Broken Hill behind, and only visit.  Still, that the city and the man are a pair….  Yes, I dare say my heart is content in this.”

Charles bowed to Maraline, and showed almost as much difference to Katrisha, who found it more than a bit odd, but consented to nod to him politely as he walked off to see to his own affairs.

“Why is Charles here any way?” Katrisha asked quietly of Maraline as they began to walk towards the keep’s outer gate.

“Appearances, mostly,” Maraline answered.  “His whole family was invited.  His father had no interest, but I expect to see the Duchess of Wesrook, and…”  The princess covered her mouth, laughed, and Katrisha followed her gaze in the direction Charles had gone.

“Charlie!” could be heard as a blond haired girl a head shorter than the young man finished her run at her brother, and to even Katrisha’s amazement lifted him off his feet.

“My, she’s getting quite strong,” Maraline said trying to reign in her humor.  “I think she got that one from you.  The only other young woman I can think of who lifts her brother off his feet.”

“At least Wren is smaller than me,” Katrisha laughed, “and younger.”

“Millarae!” an equally fair haired older woman yelled as she walked up on the scene.  “Show some dignity, please!”

“Duchess Meloria,” Maraline nodded as she and Katrisha approached the family reunion.

“Princess Maraline, Lady Ashton,” the Duchess nodded.  “Curtsy dear,” she said nudging Millarae, who did as she was bid.  “It is Katrisha, I presume?  Do forgive me, I never did learn to tell you from your twin…who I believe I have heard is still, absent.  Oh dear… Forgive me, that was poorly done, wasn’t it.”

Katrisha was stony faced.  “Yes, on all counts,” she took a breath, “and you would not be the first to raise the issue in precisely that way.”

“Again, my apologies,” Meloria offered.  “Still, it is very good to see you.  It has been several years since I have found cause to visit Broken Hill.”

“And it is good to see you as well,” Katrisha nodded.  “I barely remember little Millarae from my visit to Wesrook.  Not quite so little any more, she seems to have caught up to me.”

“I remember you,” Millarae laughed, “mostly ‘cause Charles could not be quiet about you.”

“Only because you would not stop asking questions about her,” Charles cut back.

“I asked about both of them,” Millarae scrunched her face up at her brother.  “You were all Katrisha did this, Katrisha did that.  You would swear her sister wasn’t even there.”

“Millarae,” her mother chided with false calm.

“Oh,” Millarae said uncomfortably.  “Sorry…”

Katrisha was already over it, but found the stony look on Charles’ face perplexing.  She was interrupted from her curiosity as Mercu arrived.

“Lady Meloria,” Mercu declared as he walked up on the exchange.

“Oh, good Mercu,” Meloria said.  “A pleasure to see you.”

“More so on my account, I assure you,” Mercu offered his hand, and Meloria obliged for him to kiss hers.  “I’d hoped you might attend the wedding.”

“I would not miss the opportunity,” Meloria said with a wry smile.  “Not every day a princess marries the heir of South Rook, and clears up this whole mess about succession.”

“Indeed,” Mercu obliged.  “I’m sure you have no other designs in your visit.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Meloria said with a laugh.  “Never to early to nudge things along in the right directions.”

“Any particular directions in mind?” Mercu asked conspiratorially.

“That, would be telling,”  Meloria said with a smirk.  “Let us head in, so much to do.  So many details to wrap up.  Most unfortunate that so much of the affair has been left to the last minute over political waffling on locations.  Men,” she muttered.  “So worried about how things look, that they undermine getting everything to look right.”

“I’d know nothing about that,” Mercu offered with a chuckle.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha glanced across the ballroom.  She had begun to lose interest in balls some years before.  She loved the dresses the women wore, the grace of some of the dancers, but the pomp and posturing had worn thin on her.  She was also not terribly fond of dancing any more herself, though perhaps it was the game implied with the coming of age.  She had other interests, the whole thing seemed a frivolous distraction, and she had enough of those.

As much as she admired many of the dresses she had rejected all of the options presented to her, and gone for her finest formal black robe, with silver trim.  She wore her favorite silver pin, gemmed with green glass.  While cheap in fact it held up quite well in practice.

She had accepted, with less reluctance, a loan of emerald cuff earrings, and and a necklace to match.  Her hair was up, held in a bun with pins.  On the whole she looked like a more refined version of her usual self.  She had successfully avoided being asked to dance, and stood along a wall simply watching the affair absently.

Millarae had largely dominated her brother’s time on the dance floor, and Katrisha was oddly heartened by how much the girl adored him.  That he showed her a remarkable amount of deference stood in odd contrast to Katrisha’s usual opinion of the boy.  Certainly it seemed he had some virtues that had escaped her, though she was little more capable of naming them for the observation.

Katrisha sipped her drink, and began idly forming an arrangement of orbiting spheres.  This drew passing attention from the other guests near her.  She quickly became lost in her idle entertainment, and barely noticed as someone approached her.

“I do not believe I have seen you dance at all tonight,” Charles commented.

It took Katrisha a moment to even realize the words had been meant for her, and she gave the hand being held out to her a rather curious glance.  “I would not wish to deprive your sister of a partner,” she opened with, in an attempt to politely reject the extended offer.

“She has already found one,” Charles said gesturing across the ballroom where Millarae danced with a young man of about her age.

Katrisha considered her options, found a place to set her drink, and rather than dispel her array of spheres, scattered them out into a slow moving cloud around them.  She raised an eyebrow, and took the hand, permitting Charles to lead her onto the dance floor.  “I never had the impression,” she began as the song started, and Charles took her other hand, “that you, and I were on such amiable terms.”

“We’ve certainly had our issues,” Charles answered, “but you, I believe made the first efforts long ago to mend that.”

“And you have continued to bungle matters,” Katrisha counterrd frankly.

“Through no intention, I assure you,” Charles replied as they moved through the crowd that gave some space to Katrisha’s orbiting light show.  “I admit though that I have little understood how to speak with you.”

“Presumptions, I think have always been your problem,” Katrisha offered.  “You presume that the world is, as you have been taught.”

“To be fair,” Charles countered, “I have been taught, what I have been taught.  Am I to think otherwise?”

“Are you incapable of considering things for yourself, and reading of your own accord?”

“Fair,” Charles offered, with some displeasure to admit.  Failing to find a good argument he moved on.  “My mother, and sister certainly think highly of you.”

“Curious,” Katrisha said.  “I barely know either.”

“Ah, but they have made it their business to know of you,” Charles countered.

“Whatever for?”

“Mother’s reasons are her own, but I think you, and your sister have become something of an inspiration to Millarae.  She has refused all efforts to dissuade her from practicing with the guard trainees.  At first of course they would go easy on her, when she would jump into a practice against orders, and start swinging.  I hear however, that she has begun to require more serious effort to avoid embarrassing them.  My father is fuming that it has been permitted, my uncle disgusted with her behavior.  He even gave the order to knock her down in any way that wouldn’t leave a mark, which has only lead to her getting better,” he laughed lightly.  “Mother I think has made peace with it at least.”

“Have you spared with her?” Katrisha asked.

“I have.  No challenge, but I have many years on her,” Charles offered.

“You do not think it is merely because she is a girl then?” Katrisha challenged.

“She is younger, yes, but you are both of these as well, and have bested me.”

It seemed only a slight dodge.  Katrisha let it slide.  “No excuses this time?”

“Less an excuse, than a fact,” Charles answered.  “You are still the only opponent I have faced armed with a stave.”

“We could try again,” Katrisha offered.  “Perhaps in the morning?”

“Not enough dancing tonight?” Charles asked with nervous humor.

“More fun in the ring, I’m allowed to knock you on your rear,” Katrisha countered.

“Won’t you be busy though?”

“The wedding is not for another day,” Katrisha protested.  “Are you making excuses?”

“Only making sure.”  Charles laughed uncomfortably.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 1st, 647 E.R.

It was very early, but this had not stopped a collection of curious onlookers from gathering.  Word had spread quickly of a duel proposed between the young mage who had fought a dragon, and the heir of Wesrook.  Many whispers had curiously mentioned that it had been arranged over a dance, and the novelty of that alone had something of a draw.

Katrisha, for once, had been up very early, and been waiting for Charles for some time.  She was meditating as the crowd had gathered.  Meditation had never been her strong suit, so she was surprised to notice that she had missed the gathering, and Charles’ arrival.  She did her best to hide her foggy frame of mind as she glanced about.

Katrisha considered that there was quite a royal audience at the front.  The Duchess of Wesrook, and Millarae were behind Charles.  The King, Crown Prince, and Maraline to her left.  The Princess looked as though she was worried that her maid of honor might be bruised for her wedding day, in spite of Katrisha’s assurances that she could heal anything unsightly.  In of course the implausible event Charles could even land a blow.

The groom to be, and the sitting Duke Parin were to Maraline’s right.  Mercu stood a few steps behind, and had an uncharacteristic expression that was hard to read.  Something less than jovial, shrewd certainly.  She doubted he entirely approved of her little challenge, but had kept his silence.  He had no power to dissuade her, and wouldn’t think to do so now that a crowd had gathered.  Katrisha was less certain of the rest of the gathered onlookers, but she intended to put on a good show.  Mercu might not approve, but he had certainly taught her showmanship.

“So, sticking with sword and shield?” Katrisha asked as charles moved to arm himself.  She lept up, and struck a fighting stance, a little more exaggerated to be showy.  “The stave does still have the advantage of reach.”

“Though you said I was the only one you’ve fought with a stave,” Katrisha observed teasingly.

“Wasn’t really proper matches, just pointers.”

“And have you beaten Horence?” Katrisha asked.

“Once,” Charles said.

“Twice,” Katrisha smiled, and bowed to her opponent.

“Who opens?” Charles asked, and bowed himself.

“The one with the guts,” she taunted, and before Charles could set himself to it, she had already struck.  He was more than able to catch her blow, the shield providing defensive advantage, where the stave had reach.

Charles of course could not remain defensive, and maintain face, so made his own cautious move.  This was easily deflected into a counter strike, taken again loudly by his shield.  Neither move had been serious, not merely testing, but there was an unspoken showmanship that went with dueling before a large crowd.  You open slow, not merely to avoid overcommitting, but also to not finish quickly.

The following series of traded blows were faster than the first.  Charles parried with his practice sword, and tried instead an attack with the shield.  Early for such an opening gambit, but the surprise did earn him more effort, and some dramatic movement by Katrisha to deal with the threat.  Charles attempted to exploit this and get a thrust in, but she evaded it, and brought her staff around hard into another successful block.

“No magic,” Charles taunted.

“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction,” Katrisha laughed, and another series of quick blows were traded, parried, blocked.  Katrisha made ample use of the flexibility of the staff to deflect a blow, and carry through an attack with the other end.  Charles easily dealt with this, the independance of the sword, and shield showing advantage.

Katrisha came down from above with a swing, Charles brought himself under the wild move, blocking above, and thrusting forward, but Katrisha was already out of the way of the thrust, and flicked the sword away with the other end of the staff.

“Sure you aren’t using magic?” Charles laughed.

“Magic,” Katrisha said, “is spells.  The gift is in the blood, the bone, and the flesh.”

They exchanged more blows quickly to no advantage.  “Still seems like cheating to me,” Charles said.

“Would you have me hold back?  Tie a hand behind my back?”  Katrisha chided.  “You even use a bit of gift yourself, the blood of dukes, and all that.  Nothing worth training for magic, but I can read your stronger strikes before you make them, because you are channeling it.  Typically, I expect you would think you have an advantage in strength, being a man.”  She moved quickly, striking several times with great force, and pushing Charles onto defense.  “But I have the greater gift by far, so I can actually hit harder than you.”

“Still sounds like cheating,” Charles countered.

“Whatever helps you save face,” Katrisha laughed, and parried a series of his blows with no thought to counter any of them.  “Here, let me help.  I will tie a hand behind my back, more or less.”  She threw out a series of light orbs with sweeps of her staff that hovered around the edge of the ring.  “I’ll maintain these, while fighting you.  Just a little distraction to keep things interesting.  Of course if you get distracted by them too, that’s your problem.”

Charles dubiously tried several more attacks, but found Katrisha still more than capable.  He hardly trusted that what she had just done did not help her in some way.  She had however been honest, it was a distraction to do so, but the temptation to have some fun crept in.  She absorbed some of the force from every blow she blocked, storing it off into the orbs, making new ones if any showed signs of overloading.

“What are you up to?” Charles asked after their dance had gone on a while longer.

“Just a little fun,” Katrisha smiled.  “Nothing I’ll use on you, promise.  Really quite distracting.  I might have to start trying to fight you soon.”

Charles got more aggressive at the taunting, and true to her word Katrisha did have to start struggling with some of his blows, but not so much as to keep her from counter attacking frequently.  One particular parry let her get her staff behind his shield to strike his shoulder, and knock him off balance.  She parried a counter stroke that he tried anyway, and swept his leg landing him on his rear.

Exhilarated Katrisha came out of the sweep, and struck the ground hard, using all the stored energy she had to launch herself upward spectacularly, shattering the spheres, and cresting a good ten feet in the air.  She lacked the actual grace to control the resulting tumble, and had to use magic to correct it.  She shed the force of her fall into the air around her as she landed some distance behind the already downed Charles.  In truth she nearly toppled from the landing, but quick use of her stave for balance made the whole thing look quite nearly flawless.

She huffed several times wondering what had come over her.  It had felt so natural, riding a wave of adrenaline, but it had been wildly impetuous.  The stunned crowd started clapping for the finish.  Katrisha straightened up, and walked over to offer Charles her hand.  “Sorry, got carried away.”

He took the hand reluctantly.  “Shall we try that again, without showing off?”  He said.

“If you insist,” Katrisha laughed, “but it will only go worse for you.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“What do you all say?” Katrisha hollered, turning to look over the crowd. “Would you like an encore?  Without the flourish?”

“With!”  Someone yelled back.

“I’ll take another challenger after I give Charles his boring round,” Katrisha laughed.  Mercu’s expression underwent a barely perceptible shift.  “Or three!”  She turned back, and bowed to Charles, who returned it.  Already warmed up the two went quickly into real attacks, no longer really needing to test the other.  It was evident to Katrisha that Charles was putting everything he had into the match then, and she kept it simple, making sure that there was no chance it looked as though she did anything but fight him fair, and square.  However in simple truth he was at a disadvantage.

The match ended almost the same – save no dramatic aerial performance – but with a twirl that took her out of the path of a swing, and brought her staff behind Charles, knocking him forward.  She offered him her hand again, and he took it.

“Let’s hear a round for Charles,” Katrisha said, and there was some modest clapping, though more enthusiastic from his sister.  “Alright.  I’ll need three volunteers.  Let’s help the boy save some face by showing what I can really do.  I’m the girl who fought a dragon, who wants a go?”  What had become at times a thing of some embarrassment, right that moment, high from victory, was an almost giddy badge of honor.

The knight commander of South Rook stepped forth, as did two of the guard.  “You sure it’s a fair fight?” he asked.

“Only one way to find out,” Katrisha laughed, and grinned a bit impishly.  “But I will be going all in this time, magic and all.  Nothing too rough of course.”

The commander nodded.  “Alright, swords, and shields boys.”

“Little more room everybody,” Katrisha yelled out.  “Don’t want any bystanders getting in the way.”  She rolled her shoulders, and the three men armed with practices swords, and shields surrounded her.  Her barrier went up, a simple enough spell that would slow anything inert except her own stave, which she quickly enchanted to counter the effect.  She made sure though not to slow the incoming attacks too much, just for the sake of show.  It would give her a strong advantage, but not directly tip off ungifted observers what was going on.

“Gentlemen first.”  Katrisha laughed, and bowed.  Her three opponents returned it, though only two were in view.  Taking Katrisha’s comment as an instruction the commander opened.  His attacks were testing, and no real threat.  “Come on,” Katrisha chided the other two, “join in.  I want to make this interesting.”

The barrier slowed the strikes of her attackers just enough to allow Katrisha to deflect two separate blows with a single swing.  To them it felt as though they were striking molasses, and they could feel a chill in their blades.  The guard behind her, seeing she was distracted tried for obvious advantage, only to find his thrust parried, as Katrisha could sense it entering her field.  Though she largely had to guess where precisely the strike was, her staff made a broad sweep effective.  

She turned into the single opponent, gave him a quick thrust to the chest that he failed to block, and put him on his rear.  Pulling out of her previous attack, she came around again with a wave of force stored up in her barrier.  This knocked the other guard from his feet, and staggered the commander.

She dueled with the commander momentarily for fun, while the other two got back up.  He was good, much better than her, and in a fair fight she wouldn’t have stood a chance, but she wasn’t arranging a fair fight, she was showing off.  He was also gifted, even more so than Charles, which was still to his disadvantage.  She could read his moves before he made them, while he had to read her body language, and tells.  Something that decades of experience made him quite good at.

On the whole Katrisha suspected the man to be Horence’s equal at least, if not slightly his better.  He did not however have the same talent for reading the moves of gifted, and this in turn was in Katrisha’s favor.  On the whole it was only managing two other opponents that was making it a nearly fair fight.

Katrisha felt another strike coming from behind, and dodged, sweeping the leg of the second guard who had only just gotten back up, and returning him to the ground.  She struck the back of the man who had come from behind, and pushed him forward, forcing the commander to back off.  All three were then in front of her.  She brought her staff around for several more swings with reach, each of which were parried.  She made a move that was better to dodge than block, and forced the commander into position for a blow of force that teetered him, and forced the others to the ground.  He almost recovered before her next staff swing brought him down.

Katrisha bowed again, and the crowd clapped.  “Now that,” she laughed.  “Is how you cheat.”  She offered a hand to a guard who was still down, and then to the commander.  “Thank you,” she said, “I’ve never gotten to do that before.”  He did not look particularly more pleased.

Katrisha walked over to Maraline who was particularly enthusiastic with her applause.  She curtsied to the princess.  “So, still worried about me being marked up for tomorrow?”

“No, but I do have some concerns about my other guests,” Maraline laughed.

“Why?” Katrisha grinned, “I’ll protect them.”

“But who ever will protect them from you?”

“Their own good sense not to fight me?” Katrisha suggested.

“After today, I should hope.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 2nd, 647 E.R.

The wedding was a lovely affair.  Far grander than anything Katrisha had witnessed, and even for all the regal airs it did touch something in her.  Still, even a more spectacular ball than the one which had first welcomed the wedding party to South Rook, could not hold her interest for very long.  She had heard that there would be fireworks, and retreated to a higher floor, where from years past she recalled a public balcony.

The view out over South Rook was a lovely thing, and for a moment it brought Katrisha some peace.  Though a moment of calm from the storm growing in her mind, only provided opportunity for her to grapple with what was truly troubling her.  She was happy for Maraline, she was, she assured herself.  There was no question in her mind that Lukus was dear to her, and that she would be content in South Rook.  It was South Rook that bothered her.

Katrisha remembered all too well the conversation that she and her sister had overheard in that very spot years before.  The schemes of a duke and baron to elevate criminals, and blame the innocent.  As distasteful as that aspect was, it was her sister that bothered her.  Kiannae was gone, somewhere far away.  That was if she still lived, and Katrisha had to believe her sister had not come to some terrible end.  Yet believing so at that moment took far more effort that she was comfortable with.  Effort, that if Laurel’s theories were correct, Kiannae had not given to imagining Katrisha could have survived.  She waffled from sorrow, to anger, and then settled on thoughts of Maraline.

She was honored, and touched that Maraline had chosen her to stand as maid of honor, but also troubled by it.  Katrisha was unsure if she really considered Maraline a friend, but if she was not, then Katrisha had to accept she had none.  Wren counted, surely, even if he was blood, but the distinction whittled away at the thin comfort.

Even if Maraline was Katrisha’s friend, she would no longer reside at court on Broken Hill, and Wren lived in the north with Renae.  The wedding meant that Katrisha would be alone, with no confidant at all, save Laurel and Mercu.  However much she loved each they were like fathers to her, not the easy comfort of friendship, or her bond with her sister.

“I thought I saw you head up into the tower,” Charles commented behind her.  She was almost startled, but even distracted by her own thoughts, on some level she had known someone had approached, and stood there for some time.  Maybe even on some level knew who, Charles did have gift enough that his presence gave a unique impression.  Not unlike the feel of soft piled hay, a fleeting memory from a childhood home long gone.

Katrisha turned irritably to the young man, who for his part looked to her with none of the venom she offered.  He wore a kind smile, and regal attire appropriate to the day’s festivities.  His blond hair was swept to the side, and on the whole he was very put together.  For just a moment she could forget how often in her life he had annoyed her.  He had been trying so very hard to be better it seemed, yet she was ill at ease to release the grudges she held.

“I sought solitude,” Katrisha began, but then thought better of it, “and have come to question if I truly desire it.”  She was not inclined to encourage Charles to remain, nor as she thought on it entirely ready to be alone anymore.  She leaned against the rail, and crossed her arms, giving him a look she couldn’t have read herself.

“Tell me what it is you would prefer,” Charles offered.

“That I have any friends left in this world,” she offered in confidence that she immediately reconsidered.

“Surely you are Maraline’s friend,” Charles questioned, “she did name you her maid of honor.”

“She and I,” Katrisha began with some reservation, “are somewhat in the same predicament.  I’m not sure if either of us would readily say friend of the other, save to be polite, and not split hairs unnecessarily.  Yet what real confidence we have, I cannot say.  No, perhaps I am unfair.  She has often offered me confidence more than once regarding her beloved, now husband.  I’ve had nothing similar to offer in kind, nor do I know if I would have.  However much we have been raised in the same court, I feel none the less like we are part of different worlds.”

“I see,” Charles nodded, and stepped further onto the balcony.  He leaned on the rail a respectful distance away.  “Who has my confidence, I am also less than certain,” he offered.  “I’ve sparring partners certainly,” he said thoughtfully, “and a camaraderie of sorts that comes naturally with my fellow heirs.”

“What of Philip?” Katrisha pressed.  “The two of you have always seemed quite amiable.”

“Perhaps,” Charles seemed quite dubious on the suggestion. “Yet what interests do we really share?  Polite conversation over affairs of a nation that one day will actually be our responsibility?  He’s more favorable of the views my father holds than his cousin, or you…or the King.  It seems a losing proposition altogether.”

“Do I hear doubt in your voice for Clarion teaching?” Katrisha asked cautiously.

“Doubt…certainly,” Charles offered.  “Who in this world is without doubt?  Yet who am I to question, and all the more who am I to ignore that my betters question.  I cannot say that I do not find a sense of peace in the teaching, and yet there is so much fire that belies the harmony promised.”

“Life is suffering,” Katrisha mused.

“Not words I would imagine to hear from your lips,” Charles pressed curiously.

“And why wouldn’t I?”  Katrisha countered.  “My sister is lost to me, and I must cling defiantly to the hope that she lives.  I have no true friends, save my own brother who spends much of the year far away.  Further I have not felt entirely right since the mountain.”

“Surely your injuries were an ordeal, and the strain of the circumstances would linger,” Charles suggested kindly.

“I keep feeling it is more.”  Katrisha shook her head.  “That something other than the obvious is wrong.  Not even the shadow of a war that ever looms, but never comes, seems to answer the call of what troubles me.  I find that… I am drifting, losing focus.  That time sometimes slips by, and I fail to even notice.”

“You seemed focused enough in our duel,” Charles countered, “or when you defeated three grown men, expertly trained to fight.”

“When I have something to focus on,” Katrisha said, “particularly something as invigorating as a sparring, it is not so difficult.”

“Does conversation help?”

“It would seem,” Katrisha consented, and looked back out over the city.

“Then perhaps I will remain here with you.”

Katrisha glanced at the young man.  She was still not sure she liked him at all, but there was something pleasant in the way he looked at her.  She nodded, and turned back to the city.  “As you will.”

A series of fireworks began to light the darkening sky, and as lovely as they were, Katrisha found herself closing her eyes, and listening to the sound.  She felt a hand beside hers on the rail, nothing quite so forward as to place it atop hers.  She barely looked down, somewhat willfully ignored that Charles had moved closer, and returned to the display in the sky.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 12th, 647 E.R.

Laurel considered with some curiosity the complex array of orbs that buzzed about Katrisha’s tower chamber.  It filled most of the room, and was to his eye the most detailed recreation of the solar system he had ever seen, rivaling anything he had ever done himself.  Planets, moons, and even asteroids moved along projected arcs, and a great many arcane symbols followed, or labeled the courses.  Though he recognized most of the symbols, the notation meant nothing to him.  It seemed likely something of Katrisha’s own devising.

He dodged planets as he made his way towards where Katrisha sat, seemingly absent mindedly in bed.  His passage slightly disrupted the projected paths, but seemed to do little to the overall function of the spell.  He stopped to consider a number of runes that moved on their own curious paths not seeming to label anything obvious, but quickly became more concerned with Katrisha’s acknowledgement of his presence.

Taking less care to avoid the moving parts of the spell he waked to Katrisha’s bed.  Still she just sat there, staring distantly past the center of the room.

“Katrisha?” Laurel pressed, and received no response.  He grabbed her by the shoulders gently, still nothing.  He gave a light shake.   “Kat, wake up.”

Still Katrisha sat there unblinking, and Laurel could barely have cared less as a large planet and accompanying moons crashed into him, and dissolved in swirls of light that washed over them.

Katrisha blinked, and looked around.  “What?” she asked.

Laurel got down on his knees.  “Are you alright?”

“I think so,” Katrisha seemed confused.  “What’s going on?”

“That’s my question,” Laurel demanded.

“What?” Katrisha looked around even more confused.

“What were you doing?” Laurel asked in a measured tone.

“I wasn’t doing anything…I…”  She looked bewildered.  “I was just laying down for a nap.”

“When was the last time you ate?” Laurel asked befuddled, and worried.

“Breakfast,” Katrisha answered.

“Go get some lunch,” Laurel ordered, and Katrisha nodded somewhat absently.  She got up, and Laurel got out of her way as she walked out of the room.  There were no traces of the spell, and Laurel was less than certain if she had dispelled it, or if it’s decay had been what had finally woken her.

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Chapter 17

As the child grows,
any parent knows,
so too the troubles go,

yet a common child,
shall never be so wild,
as those gifted born.

and so mages well beware,
the children you might sire,
or to be mother of the storm.

– Lament of Araena Grey, circa 100 E.R.

Young Troubles

Estae 25th, 645 E.R.

Katrish and Kiannae stood side by side on north balcony above the throne room, watching the proceedings below impatiently.  It was far from the first time, but invariably they grew bored with all the formalities, and repetition.  Grain reports and petty grievances, petitions for justice for minor crimes, and worries both that too much, or too little is spent on the Osyrean border in the north.  Mercu’s tales of Clarion political maneuvering had however piqued their interest to try again, waiting to see if anything would happen.  Nothing really had, not at least on the four occasions they had taken an hour or less to watch since.

That day though Idolus was in court, standing at Arlen’s side as Mercu had implied was often the case.  Arlen’s place in the order for the day had yet to come up, to Arlen’s clear frustration, as much as the girls.  They were growing painfully bored with the minutia of running a kingdom, but something of the airs the two men possessed spoke of trouble they were not ready to miss.

“The court recognizes Sir Arlen, of Wesrook,” the court herald declared, bringing the twins back from their own musings.

“Your Majesty,” Arlen said with a bow, “a matter of some concern has arisen.  It has come to my attention that the Court Mage’s twin apprentices are likely being poisoned against the merits of Clarion teaching.”

Both girls glanced at each other, uncertain what to make of the accusation.  They certainly had not expected to be the subject that Arlen opened on.  Kiannae looked to the king for a response, but Katrisha caught a brief sneer of Idolus up at them.  Even after South Rook she was not sure she had seen such a look of hate.

“Will this be the point at which you claim Lycian influence behind this attitude?” the King asked with an obvious lack of amusement.

“One can not be sure,” Arlen said shrewdly, “yet they do most vehemently besmirch our beliefs.”

“That is an interesting, but not uncommon viewpoint,” the King said drolly. “I have never known the Sisterhood to walk the streets proclaiming much of anything for their order, or against any other.  They will of course lend their own version of wisdom, to those who ask, without much hesitation.”

“They do walk the streets,” Arlen offered sharply, and overly proud of his own jab from the look on his face.  There were a few chuckles through the court.

“As do we all, at times,” the King cut back with much less pleasure, “or do you mean to imply that the Sisterhood sell their…attentions.  Then We would need ask who besmirches who, since this is both less than true, and breaks no law of the land.  Even if it were.  Moreover it is the attentions of a Clarion healer that must most often be paid for.  We should know, for how much of Idolus’ time this court has paid.”  There was more uncomfortable laughter at this.

Katrisha tugged at Kiannae’s sleeve, feeling that leaving might be best, but Kiannae stood firm, and gave her a look that said she had no interest in shrinking from the argument below.

“If We might, my King,” the Queen interjected, “perhaps the girls in question could speak for themselves?  They were more than capable of felling a mighty dire beast bigger than a horse, We doubt a few questions will give them all that much trouble.  Certainly they can speak more authoritatively to the matter of their educational sources and leanings.”  She looked up to where the two stood on the balcony above.  Katrisha reluctantly stepped back beside her sister.  “Please, do speak plainly girls, what have you been taught of the Clarion beliefs?”

The two exchanged an uncomfortable glance, and stood there a bit longer than was perhaps dignified under direct question.

“We have been taught that the Clarions believe in the Path of Ascension,” Katrisha offered, when Kiannae in spite of her stubborn insistence to stay did not jump to speak. “That through casting off the unnecessary distractions of the flesh, all which is not needed to continue life, and propagate the species.  To the end that we might better focus on moving towards becoming one with the light.  They believe this is the one true path, and the only valid use of one’s life.”

“What have you been taught of the beliefs of the Lycian Order, or perhaps you know them better as the Sisterhood?” the Queen asked.

“That the Lycians believe, as is the official position of the Council,” Kiannae began, finding her nerve again, “that there is no proof that Ascension is even possible, let alone desirable.  They chose instead to focus upon the merits of this life, rather than the promises of another.  They do not begrudge the Clarions the core tenants of their faith, only their doctrine to force this upon others, purportedly for their own good.”

“Anything more?” the Queen asked, “what do you believe, and from what source do you draw your conclusions?”

The girls again exchanged looks, and after a moment Kiannae spoke first.  “I believe that the Council’s assessment is accurate in that there is no proof of the functional possibility of Ascension.  The Clarion argument that the flesh itself is the sacrifice that allows the soul to ascend is plausible, but does not answer any questions of the nature of existence beyond the Veil, not a testable conclusion that it works.”

“And you?” the Queen prodded.

“I believe that there is no practical answer to either Ascension being true, or false,” Katrisha said hesitantly.  “We concern ourselves with that which is known, that which can be determined to be human nature.  If the Light made us with a true path, whatever that might be, then it must be in our natures to follow it, not against that nature.”

“What of the pull of the Abyss?” Arlen interjected after a quick whisper in his ear from Idolus.

“Is this a material pull, or an intelligent manipulation?” Katrisha demanded irritably.

“The Abyss is the void, without thought, or intent, it is nothing but endless hunger,” Arlen said without further prompting.

“Then does it change our intelligent nature, or does it anchor us down by force?”  Katrisha cut back.  “If you argue it is unintelligent, then the latter must be true.  Our nature should then be unaffected.”

“We must be prepared to sacrifice the physical to attain Ascension,” Arlen said again prompted by Idolus, “as the Council itself is prone to pointing out, if Ascension is possible, then something must descend to give the soul the power to rise.”

“Enough,” the King declared coldly. “I will not allow further ideological debate in my throne room.  Nor have you continue to pester these fine young women who have so recently done a great service for the crown, and this nation, at grave risk to their own health.  We will have answers to the charge of the willful teaching of these two against the Clarion faith.  Answer now girls, from where have you drawn your conclusions regarding Clarion teaching?”

“From Laurel, who has instructed us according to Council practice,” Kiannae answered.

“What proof do we have that Laurel himself then is not adherent to the beliefs of the Sisterhood?” Arlen demanded.

“We know it to be the case that Laurel was raised by parents who were staunch Clarion adherents,” the King said dismissively.

“Yet he is known to consort with, and bring the Matron of Highvale here to court!” Arlen proclaimed, seemingly off Idolu’s leash, and enraged to his own ends.

“For the purpose of allowing his adopted daughters, and aprentices to know their younger brother.  A poor child afflicted with unfortunate circumstances of birth, who was left to their care,” the King stated firmly.  “Would you begrudge these children to know their own blood?”

“If he is a corruption, if he brings in the false teachings to the court,” Arlen said without as much fire as before, “then unfortunately yes, such it must be.”

“Tell me girls,” the King said glancing up to the twins, “what has the Matron Renae, or Wren told you of their order?”

“Little of note,” Katrisha said finding it curious herself that such topics had rarely come up.  “Day to day life, chores, that some days are free, and others set aside for meditation.  Of his trials with a belligerent young man of the order.”

“Do you attest to this also Kiannae?” the King pressed.

“Yes,” Kiannae said curiously, “Renae has been nothing but kind to us, asked us of our lives, but told us little of hers.  I know she traveled with caravans once, and saw much of the world.  I have not known her to preach as I have seen Idolus do as he walked the street the other day.”

“So it would seem,” the King said flatly, “that the girls have attained their opinion of Clarions from the teachings of the Council.  Whether or not We agree with these opinions, or how they are stated, the Council’s authority is officially recognized in this kingdom, by treaty.  If you wish to take issue with their teachings, We recommend taking your grievances to Mordove, you will find it well east of this court.  If you are in a hurry, might We suggest the east pass.”  There was more uncomfortable humor at this, and Arlen stepped away from the dias with a less than graceful bow, clearly still fuming.

Idolus for his part eyed the girls spitefully, and then slipped back into the crowd, and out of the throne room.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 17th, 645 E.R.

Mercu stepped aside as an irate Katrisha tore past him in a fit.  He glanced down the hall where she had come from only to catch a snide look from Lady Catherine, who turned, and marched away in her own more dignified huff.  Mercu sighed, shook his head, and turned around to follow Katrisha.  It had been a good morning he thought, and that it seemed would not continue.

By the time Mercu caught up with Katrisha she had climbed the stairs halfway to the her tower chamber, and sat beneath one of the many windows off the spiral stair.  “Might I enquire as to the meaning of that scene?” he asked in a kind yet chiding tone, that drew a remarkable look of disapproval from the tear streaked face of the girl sitting before him.

“Who died, and made her Queen?” Katrisha demanded.

Mercu was a bit taken aback by Katrisha’s question, but finally settled on a response.  “Her father, actually,” he said stroking his chin, and watching Katrisha’s expression change to one of confusion.

“What?” she asked still half sobbing, and shaking her head for the lack of sense the statement made to her.

“Didn’t you know?” Mercu asked with a laugh. “Haven’t you ever wondered why Catherine holds so much sway in the court?  Catherine was the elder sister of the King.”  He watched with some amusement as confusion melted to an unmistakable expression of doubt, and disbelief.  “It’s true,” Mercu insisted.

“Then why…isn’t she Queen?” Katrisha asked, clearly caught somewhere between her current distaste for the woman, and a sense of injustice at this knowledge, that she seemed not entierly prepared to believe either.

“In part because her father was not,” Mercu said searching for the best way to explain.

“Then why is the King…” Katrisha started, but was not quite sure how to finish her question.

“The proper heir to the throne of the Elder King was his first born son,” Mercu said trying to recall what he had learned over the years.  “He died at a young age, leaving the heir apparent his brother, but the King had lost control of the influences some of the knights held over his younger child.”

“But they are his knights,” Katrisha protested, “why would he approve of them, but not their influence?”

“Just as the throne is inherited, so are knighthoods,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “At least in Avrale, I’ve always found the titles of this land quaint.  No Earls, or Counts, every duke’s younger brother automatically a knight commander.  Some other knighthoods inherited, others not.  At any rate,” he said with a dismissive gesture for his own train of thought, “the children of your father’s friends, are not always your friends.  Yet in noble circles you are oft obliged to pay difference nonetheless.  So it is with the court, not everyone who bows to the King does so with love in their heart, some do it out of grudging duty.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Katrisha said momentarily distracted from her prior upset.  “Though perhaps it explains Arlen,” she said thoughtfully.

“Yes, quite,” Mercu laughed.  “Regardless, so it was with the chosen mentors of Theodore, the Elder King’s second born.  He did not trust his son would be the heir he wanted.  As King he had the power to choose his successor, to a point, but there is always a chance of discord, or even civil war when breaking from traditional inheritance.  So choosing between his grandchildren to groom, he picked the younger, who as a male child might lessen the potential strife.”

“That’s hardly fair,” Katrisha grumbled irritably.

“In private, with a few glasses of wine in her,” Mercu offered with a knowing smile, “Catherine might agree with that sentiment.  The ways of things however are not always fair, and for Catherine the slight of being passed over for the throne was not the end of her indignity.  Her father, having his son’s instruction taken out of his control, took it out on her, pushing her twice as hard to be a proper Clarion child.”

“So that’s why she is such a nasty old woman?” Katrisha demanded disapprovingly.

“I’ve seen her softer side,” Mercu chided gently, “…on occasion.  But yes, things were not always easy for her – and she was forced to choose a side in the scramble for the succession.  I’ve never been quite clear which she took, I suspect she sided with her father, and so later styled herself down.  It was fortunate – if still tragic – that Theodore died soon after his father, before things could progress too far.”

“That seems an awful thing to say,” Katrisha said a bit stricken.

“Awful things are sometimes nonetheless true,” Mercu noted.  “I’ve only heard the rumors, but things might have gotten very ugly.  Theodore’s timely death likely saved lives, since a war over successions is not a pretty affair.  Not that any war is, but cousins and brothers wind up on opposite sides in such wars.  Or sisters, and brothers, as it were.  Then there is no telling what would have happened, when, if, or even after the Council finally stepped in.  To date the Council’s resolve in these matters has been suspect.”

“How horrible,” Katrisha said, and looked down.

“As I said, it didn’t happen – fortunately,” Mercu said stooping down before the girl, and lifting her chin.  “Now that I’ve answered your questions, might you do the same for me?”

“I suppose…” Katrisha said uncertain what Mercu was asking any more.

“What did you fight with Catherine about?” Mercu asked.

“She was being very mean to one of the servants,” Katrisha said with a stern frown, “made her cry.  I told her she shouldn’t be mean, and she yelled at me for spying…but…I wasn’t, not really…not much.”

Mercu laughed.  “Spying isn’t nice.  This is why you should never get caught.  Not that it’s stopped you so far.”  He looked thoughtful for a moment.  “How did she make the servant cry?”

“I couldn’t quite hear.”  Katrisha frowned.  “Something about getting something.”

“Well, that is what servants generally do,” Mercu said distantly, obviously working something over in his head.

“She still didn’t have to be so mean,” Katrisha said stubbornly.  “She was threatening the girl, something about a secret.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mercu said with a convincing false smile.  “Go play with your sister.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“I’ve one account as to what that was about, but I find I am curious of yours,” Mercu asked kindly of Catherine, who had been staring out the window in the middle of the grand stair behind the royal antechambers.

“I will see the girl dismissed, and assure she never finds a position again,” Catherine said in a measured, but vehemently furious tone.

“And then how will she eat?” Mercu pressed.

“The little thief can rot for all I care,” Catherine growled.

“Did you find something missing?”

Catherine glared at Mercu.

“Someone put her up to finding something, didn’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Then blame whoever coerced the poor girl, not her.  She is hardly the first in these halls to find herself a victim of you all scheming against one another.”

“She claimed not to know who had demanded it of her, nor could I wrest what secret was being held over her head from her lips, before that little spy interfered.”

“I’ll note her spying has been of some use,” Mercu countered.

“Yes…use,” Catherine said with displeasure.

“Do you object that justice was done?” Mercu asked rhetorically.  He knew her better than that, or at least he liked to think he did.

“You know that is not my concern,” Catherine said, and turned to glare out the window again.  “It was justice at a cost, one that we cannot yet judge, but is already very high.  Arlen is up to something new after that falling out in court, I do not know what, but I know that he is, desperation is making him bold.”

“It was justice, plain and simple,” Mercu said flatly.  “We cannot play the game of placation forever.  Something will give, and Arlen is holding a losing hand.”

Catherine looked at him, her expression hard to read, anger touched with sorrow.  “I do not know what to do with you,” she finally said.  “Sometimes I think you a better man than most in these halls…and others…”

“I do aim to be trouble,” Mercu bowed slightly.  “Yet always in the best sorts of ways.”

“Yes…trouble.”  Catherine sighed exasperatedly, and looked back out the window with less ire, softening to something that seemed more sadness than her former rage, though her nails still dug at her thumb in a bad habit, one Mercu had caught before playing cards against the woman.

“Do you know at least what she was looking for?”

“No,” Catherine said firmly, but Mercu suspected otherwise.  The fidgeting with her fingers was like when she was bluffing.

“Well that is peculiar,” Mercu acknowledged, hiding that he knew she was lying.

“Very.”

“Did she find it?” he said doubling back, trying to catch her off guard.

“I am through being questioned,” Catherine snapped, her fists clenched at her sides.

“I shall simply wait for a servant girl to be dismissed, and question her.”

“Then I will bide my time, and see her dismissed when you can no longer be certain,” Catherine cut back.

“I am sure Katrisha can identify the girl for me.”

Catherine glared at him again, and then looked back out the window.  “If you wish me to permit the girl to stay, then leave me be, but I will not have her enter my chambers again.”

“As you wish, fair lady,” Mercu bowed.

Catherine huffed in protest.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 23rd, 645 E.R.

A bolt of lightning shattered a glimmering shard of ice high above the cliffs below the west tower at Broken Hill.

“Hey!” Katrisha snapped at her sister.

“Sorry,” Kiannae sighed.  “I just wanted to see if I could do it.  You are better at that spell than I am, and I’m bored.”

“Well try the fire again, leave my spells alone.”

Kiannae conjured a sputtering ball of fire, and sent it zipping into the distance, though it whiffed out only a few hundred feet away.

“Better,” Katrisha said encouragingly.

Kiannae shrugged, and leaned back against the wall of their window seat.

Katrisha reached out again.  The weaving of an icicle was an oddly natural thing for her.  It was almost the form of her magic to begin with.  A small crystalline arc, a thing that slipped from her finger from a jagged web that had woven up her hand, a shape just as the form would be, roughed and faceted and sharper than any razor.  Air frozen denser than diamond, the atmosphere before it collapsed, the pressure behind it pushed forward.  It slipped frictionless, a perfect mirrored surface cutting through the vacuum left as it formed.

As it zipped away it was again shattered by lightning.  Katrisha gave her sister a dirty look, and Kiannae just shrugged and smriked.

“Well, you are better at that than I am,” Katrisha said crossing her arms.  “And with raw force.”

“Not much fun without a target,” Kiannae countered.  “Are you sure those ice shards are safe to be shooting off like that, won’t they come down somewhere?”

Katrisha shook her head.  “My math says they will reach escape velocity well before the spell wears off.”  Katrisha sent another one flying, this time much faster, Kiannae’s bolt missed and formed a ball that wove about a bit in the air before it dissipated.

“That was interesting,” Kiannae remarked, and tired to repeat it to little results.  The charge she had formed did not want to leap to the empty space.  She carefully grounded it into the stone of the castle slowly, lest it leave a mark.

“What are you two doing?” Laurel demanded having entered the room unnoticed.

“Just practicing,” Katrisha said defensively.

“We want to be prepared if we have to fight again,” Kiannae added.

“After South Rook, and the cougar,” Katrisha added.

Laurel sighed, and rubbed his forehead.  “Please don’t throw spells out the windows.  I’ll see if I can get you some time to practice with proper targets, where you can’t do any harm.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 24th, 645 E.R.

Katrisha peered down over the parapet she sat upon, and into the courtyard below.  “Are you sure about this?” she asked uncertainly.

“I haven’t had any trouble so far,” Kiannae said perched on her toes at the very edge.

“I have,” Katrisha said nervously.

“You stopped yourself just fine, you just didn’t account for forward momentum,” Kiannae chided.

“And almost slid off the roof,” Katrisha grumbled.

“Well, that’s not a problem here, is it,” she said pointedly.  “Besides, I’ll catch you if you get it wrong.”  With that she jumped, and and rolled into a tight ball as she fell a good thirty-five feet before spreading her arms in a sweeping gesture, and stopping about three feet off the ground.  Katrisha could see the grass and surrounding bushes blow about wildly for just a moment as Kiannae gracefully stuck the landing from the last few feet.

The guards at the keep door turned to stare at the young mage who seemed to have simply appeared out of nowhere only a few dozen feet away.  They looked at each other, and then up where Katrisha was now standing, just in time to catch a glimpse of her perched on the edge before she jumped.  Katrisha did just as her sister had before her, but stopped a good seven feet up, instead of three.

Realizing her mistake, Katrisha quickly tried again as she started to fall the rest of the way.  She stopped just an inch above the ground, but failed to keep her balance as she landed, and fell flat on her back.  “Ow,” she muttered, and and reached to rub her head.

“Good work,” Kiannae laughed, “except for the landing part.”

“I’d say you do better…but I guess you already did,” Katrisha growled.

“Come on then, on to the archery range,” Kiannae laughed and headed on.

“Can we skip the rest of the shortcuts please?” Katrisha asked hopefully, getting to her feet.

“You can if you want,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “I intend to practice.”

“Oh, so it’s going to be like that,” Katrisha said as she dusted herself off, and then sprinted past her sister.  Kiannae blinked with surprise, and ran after her.  A hand full of people around the courtyard watched the ensuing race curiously, and all with equal disbelief gasped as Katrisha vaulted over the rail at the edge of the upper courtyard, with her sister following close behind.

Katrisha timed her deceleration better, stopping only two feet off the ground, but failed to get all of her forward momentum, and was forced to roll out of her landing.  She scrambled to her feet with what was left of her grace, as Kiannae landed just behind her.  “Sloppy landing again sister,” Kiannae yelled.

“Still ahead,” Katrisha called back as she ran on.

As the pair bolted past the castle gate they were given strange looks by guards who opted not to interfere.  Katrisha leapt from the steep hill beside the road leading out of the castle gate, and this time rather than trying to stop herself turned her fall into more forward movement, clearing the bottom of the slope of the hill, and then a bit awkwardly stopped herself at the bottom, sending a wild shock wave out through the air.  The air snapped back with enough force that she stumbled on her landing.

Kiannae watched the maneuver, impressed with the ingenuity, if not the execution.  Refusing to be outdone she did the same, and leapt from the hill, propelled herself forward, and rolled gracefully out of her landing when she slowed herself at the bottom.  Katrisha had already managed to get back to her feet, and the two were now tied as they ran into the archery range.

“Not bad Kat, not bad,” Kiannae laughed between gasps for breath.

“That was an interesting show over there,” a man with a bow slung over his shoulder said as he approached the pair.  “Can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone  jump off that hill before.”

“You should have seen us off the keep wall,” Kiannae laughed.

“Indeed,” the man said with a raised eyebrow.  “I do not believe we have met, I am Bern, and I assume you are the infamous twins.  I was told you had been granted use of the archery range, to practice things other than archery.”

“Yes,” Katrisha said rubbing her neck that was a bit sore from her tumbles, “Laurel has given us permission to experiment with offensive spells.  Though he stressed ‘no giant balls of fire’ rather strongly.”

“That would be appreciated,” Bern said with a dark laugh, “as the targets are mostly straw.  As you will ladies, I’ll be watching if you don’t mind.”

“I never mind an audience,” Kiannae said with a smug grin.

“Shall we start with ice?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“You would chose ice,” Kiannae muttered.

Katrisha eyed the distant target, and carefully started to form the spell, which flew from her hands and accelerated to the target.  The narrow shard of ice nicked the edge of the target, and flew past shattering on the base of the castle wall.

“Well, you gave it enough force, but the aim needs work,” Kiannae remarked, building up her own spell.

“That is what we are here for,” Katrisha shrugged, as Kiannae released her spell which stuck in the second outer ring but bounced off, and slowly steamed away on the ground.  “Not bad, not as much force, but better accuracy I must admit.”  Katrisha began to wind up her spell, and released it with as much force as the first one, but this time landed a hit on the second inner ring that passed right through the target board, and buried itself in the ground behind.

“Very good,” Kiannae acknowledged grudgingly, as she prepared her next shot.

Katrisha considered the way it formed, there was a coiling nature to the magic, rather than crystalline.  It worked all the same, it was just the shape was wrong.  The curls sent the thing spinning which only made it fly straighter, but the initial direction was uncontrollably in question.  By chance more than anything Katrisha was sure, it struck with enough force to push its blunted end through the board in the second inner ring.

“Likewise,” Katrisha said unleashing her spell with more force than the first two.  The spear of ice was also much larger this time, and shattered the target board outright through the bullseye, and stuck the castle wall shattering in a glimmering cloud, and leaving a small mark.

“Hmph,” Kiannae said admitting momentary defeat on that one.

“Sorry about the target,” Katrisha said turning to Bern with a slight bow.

“It happens…I guess,” Bern said a bit bewildered.  He had watched Laurel practice once or twice, but he was always more reserved than it seemed the two twins before him were inclined to be.

“Fire next?” Kiannae asked.

“Alright, but keep it small, and we’ll take turns putting it out on impact,” Katrisha said flatly.

“Very well,” Kiannae said carefully weaving a spell that ripped the air up into combustible materials, which burned in a continuous chain reaction.  Slowly a small spark grew into a fist sized ball of fire, which she directed forcefully towards a new target, but it sputtered out just short of impact, making it’s accuracy impossible to judge.

“Not a bad first try,” Katrisha said weaving her own spell, which she sent flying into the target.  A distinct burn mark was made across several of the inner rings, and smoke began to waft from inside.  Kiannae quickly snuffed out the fire transferring all its heat to a spot on the ground next to her which turned black, and briefly smoldered.

Kiannae frowned, and tried again, building the ball of fire, and releasing it.  It veered off course just before the target, and clipped the edge which immediately burst into flame as the spell dissipated.

Katrisha reached out her hand, and the flames extinguished, and a shimmer of frost formed on the target as a scorched spot formed on the ground before it.  “Better than the first try,” Katrisha said consolingly.

“Bah, lightning then,” Kiannae said irritably, and almost before the words were out of her mouth there was a tingle in the air.  Lightning was not at all the shape of her magic, which seemed more like the forces of swirling air, friction knocking loose energy, a charge built along the a coiled line, and then snapped to the path of least resistance as it was discharged into the target.  To gifted senses it was there barely a moment before the flash, a spiraling tree of spell lines that spelled powerful doom for whatever was on the other end.

The bullseye sizzled for several seconds, blackened with little embers, but it did not quite catch fire.

“Um, good shot,” Katrisha said, and tried to replicate the feat, but her spell took longer to form, and struck the outer ring rather than the center.  “I guess we each have our strengths,” she laughed.  “Still I’m two for three dear sister.”

“Oh really,” Kiannae said picking up a small rock from nearby, and sending it flying through the inner ring of the target, which splintered slightly on impact.  The rock carried through, and hit the castle wall with enough force to shatter.  “I count two and two now, your turn,” Kiannae challenged.

Katrisha picked up a stone as well, and tried, her shot hit the outer ring, with enough force to pass through, but not enough to quite reach the castle wall.  “Yes, it seems you are right, two and two.” Katrisha turned to the archery master behind her.  “Bern, would you be so kind as to fire some arrows for us.”

“Um, I suppose,” Bern said a bit confused by the request, and grabbed a bow and quiver from a rack near where he sat.  He plucked an arrow from his quiver, and drew his bow string with practiced grace.

“What are you playing at?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“Defensive magic,” Katrisha said as Bern released the first arrow.  Katrisha’s hand shot out at the same moment, and the arrow fell, encased in steaming ice just short of the target.

“Not bad,” Kiannae admitted, “but what did you do with the energy?”

“Nothing yet,” Katrisha said and threw a ball of fire at the ground before the target.

“If you would fire another one,” Kiannae said turning to Bern, who had a bit of an annoyed expression.  He obviously did not like being shown that his well honed skills with a bow were effectively useless against even these two young mages.

“Very well,” he said nocking another arrow, and let it fly.  This one though was struck by an arc of lightning from Kiannae’s hand, which continued down into the ground as the arrow disintegrated in flight, the head flipping off, and landing in the dirt.

“How quickly can you fire those off?” Katrisha asked.

“Fairly,” Bern said with a touch of irritation.

“Would you be so kind as to fire as quickly as you can?” Katrisha asked, “don’t worry about accuracy, just speed.”

“If you insist,” Bern said with a sigh, and quickly began knocking and releasing arrows at about a rate of one every second and a half.

Katrisha closed her eyes, and the arrows began dropping one after another, all covered in a thin shimmering layer of frost.  Slowly a glimmering haze formed around the target, and Kiannae realized that Katrisha was simply pulling all of the energy out of that region, rather than focusing on any one arrow.

Not ready to be beaten Kiannae began flicking the arrows off course, causing them to miss the target, and the protective shield Katrisha had formed around it.  Katrisha took all the energy she had stored up, and quickly started incinerating the deflected arrows, until finally Bern stopped, and walked away.  “I’m through feeling useless, do as you will,” he said cutting off any question.

Katrisha released the remaining energy she had stored up in small plume of flame that burst from the ground a short distance away, and left a small patch of black glass in its wake.  “So, I’m better with ice, and fire, you seem to have lightning, and good old kinetics down, but who’s stronger?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Seems like comparing apples, and oranges to me,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“Well, it’s not about which one tastes better, it’s about how big a hole it can make,” Katrisha laughed.  She gathered all of her strength, and threw a spear of ice as big as her head, and as long as her arm at the castle wall.  It cut into the stone like clay, and sat there steaming.

Kiannae picked up a small stone, and looked at it with an underwhelmed expression, refusing to give up without trying she sent it flying with all the power she could muster.  The stone struck the castle wall and simply disappeared in a large cloud of dust.  As the dust settled, the crater the impact left could be plainly seen, as well as cracks radiating out along the stone.

Not quite satisfied that her feat merited a tie Kiannae threw a huge arc of lightning at one of the targets, which burst into roaring flames.  Katrisha took just a moment to focus, and the target next to Kiannae’s burst into a pillar of fire, just as Kiannae’s was snuffed out, and a thin shimmering layer of frost formed on the ground around Katrisha’s target, and out in a great circle that encompassed the other.

Kiannae glared at Katrisha and made lightning jump between all of the targets, which all billowed smoke, and then fire.  Katrisha quickly responded by snuffing all the flames at once, leaving a thick layer of frost on the ground, then completely incinerated one the the targets in a flash that left nothing but smoldering ash.

“What in the abyss,” Bern yelled waving his hands, “get off my archery range, both of you!  Laurel will hear of this.  Go!”  Both girls seemed suddenly to come to their senses, realized what they had done, and bolted.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Unacceptable,” Laurel growled, and resumed drumming his fingers as he had been since the girls entered the tower library.  He ignored the old kitten Mar trying to nuzzle his head under his hand, which did nothing to help his attempt to look stern and disapproving.  “But not unexpected, I suppose.  Still, for getting carried away you went a bit farther that I had feared.  Destroyed target dummies, I expected, though not all of them, still it is what they are for, but holes, however small in the castle wall…dear fates do you have no sense between you?”

“I…am sorry,” Kiannae started.

“I did more of the damage,” Katrisha said with just a touch of disingenuous pride creeping in.  “It just didn’t seem…like a big deal.  We didn’t put holes through the walls, just…some small dents in a couple of stones.”

“No, and had you actually put holes through the wall…this would be another conversation entirely,” Laurel sighed, as he also relented to absently pet the insistent cat.  “I sent you out there in part because I needed to know just how carried away you would get.  However, I did not hope for this result.  Even if to a degree I expected it, this still does not excuse the behavior.”

“I’m sorry,” Katrisha finally added in turn to her sister’s prior apology.

“Even if I accept these apologies as fully genuine, there is also the issue of jumping off walls, and hills…no, something must still be done,” Laurel grumbled.  “You need discipline, and I have been considering for some time sending you to Horence for training.  Starting tomorrow, every morning, and every evening you will be learning stave fighting techniques.  You will need to be up at dawn.”

“Why?” Kiannae protested.

“Because I said to, it’s part of the whole discipline thing,” Laurel snapped, and then sighed.  He picked up the cat that was rooting at his hand protesting the crime of not being petted for even a second, “now go to your room, and stay there.”  He watched as Katrisha moved as though about to speak again, and cut her off, “Now.  And no more ‘short cuts’ either.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 25th, 645 E.R.

Horence eyed his two new recruits with clear frustration.  “I will make no pretenses that I am not fond of the pair of you,” he growled, “but I’ve heard of your antics, and I will have none of it.  I will train you as any new recruits, though the specifics of the request for your training are…not something we normally specialize in.  Still the general principles of close spear, and polearm combat should carry over well enough to staves, and I’ve spared with Laurel enough to know what he wants you to learn.”

“I still don’t understand what we are to gain from this,” Kiannae protested.

Horence picked up one of the staves that was leaned against the wall near him, and without warning swung at Kiannae, but stopped just short of landing the blow, she flinched far too late to have done herself any good.  “For now, you will ask permission to speak like any recruit.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Kiannae said meekly, and gently pushed the stave away from her shoulder.

“It’s not that the question isn’t fair, mind you,” Horence said beginning to pace before the pair.  “Ignorant, but as Laurel has told me in the past, ‘ignorance can be cured.’  I’ve heard you can stop an arrow in flight, and perhaps your magic in time could bring down an army.  Perhaps this is all true, but stopping ninety-nine out of a hundred men will still leave you dead, by the one who got through.  At close quarters, blind sided by a strong man with a sword your magic may not save you.”

Horence paused to see if either girl would speak up again, “Rely on your magic if you will, make it the heart of your defense, but it won’t protect you from the blow you didn’t see coming.  You will learn to see it coming, you will learn how to fight, so that you can know how your enemy may attack you.  Am I understood?”

“Are we expected to fight?” Katrisha asked with a touch of confusion, and quickly added at Horence’s reproving glare, “if I might ask.”

“You are expected to know how,” Horence lectured.  “Avrale has an army not because we are at war, or even have been in centuries, but because we must be prepared to defend ourselves.  There will always be those with ill intent, or who will act violently to take what they want, if you haven’t been paying attention Osyrae is no longer our friend, and bandits have plagued the north.  The army protects us not just from threats beyond, but from within.  These skills shall be to you as the army is to Avrale.  They shall keep the peace, and protect you, if the worst is to come, even if the ‘diplomacy’ of your magic keeps such dangers at bay.  Now, am I understood?”

“Yes,” the girls said in unison.

“Good, then we begin,” Horence said and tossed a stave to Kiannae, who caught it, and another to Katrisha who fumbled the catch.

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 16

Of Moon’s children it is known,
wolves in numbers thin the heard,
a proud lynx stalks alone,

Yaun’s seed walk either path,
to play each game at once is apt,
‘tis best, friend to watch your back.

– unattributed, circa 100 B.E.

Cats Among Wolves

Coria 5th, 645 E.R.

Katrisha and Kiannae sat to the right of Princess Maraline at dinner as was often enough the case.  She had returned just that afternoon from a full month stay in South Rook, her second visit since escorting Lukus home in the fall.  She had a look of absolute exuberance on her face, to the point of being almost concerning to look upon. Servants were setting out the second course when Katrisha finally asked the question on the mind of many around the almost giddy young woman.  “What has you so excited, Maraline?”

Maraline bit her lip in a less than dignified way.  “The wedding at South Rook was so romantic,” she said, but clearly this was not the entirety of what was on her mind.

“It does not seem right that the Duchess has remarried,” Charles protested.

“Why?” Kiannae demanded firmly.  “Her marriage to the traitor was annulled by the king.  I was there.”

“Parin is a remarkable man,” Maraline said quite defensively.  “A commoner by birth, yes, but that only makes what he has done in such a short time all the more impressive.  Even the most stubborn of the barron’s no longer question him.  I dare say he will be a better Duke than Fenlin ever was.”

“Surely the Duchess deserves some credit,” Katrisha chided.

“Oh and he gives her every bit, and she in turn insists it is him, it is almost painfully charming,” Maraline said covering her mouth to retrain her humor.

“It is unfortunate,” Adrien added diplomatically, “that events have transpired as they did.  Yet I do concur that for all the misfortunes involved, that things are going well in South Rook.  I am very happy for the Duchess, and new Duke Regent.”

Charles simply stared down at his plate.

“Lukus is much happier,” Maraline offered.  “Parin adores him.  The poor boy was dubious of course at first, but after the King consented to allow him to return, they have more than made peace with the arrangement.  Lukus taught his new father how to fence, and now, to watch how fervently they can go at it, then hug afterward, it is heartening.”  She only seemed more excited.

“Clearly you are happy for Lukus,” Katrisha said.  “Yet I suspect you are still holding something back.”

Maraline nodded.  “We danced quite a lot at the wedding reception…and…” she blushed slightly, “When we were alone, on a balcony overlooking the city.  He kissed me.”

“This is what has you so excited?” Kiannae laughed almost exasperatedly.

“I felt as though my heart would positively burst from my chest,” Maraline contested the downplay of her news.

“I feel like that by the time I’ve beaten Katrisha in a sparring match,” Kiannae countered.

“You two,” Maraline shook her head.  “You are like boys.”

“Now you insult us?” Katrisha chided with a touch of feigned offense, and a slight laugh.  “We are much better than boys.”  She shot a look at Charles who she saw from the corner of her eye staring at her curiously.  He quickly averted his gaze back to his plate.  She did not know what to make of the look.  “Besides, I am quite happy for you.  Clearly he is interested, and you approve of his interest, it would seem?”

“I know mother has wanted this all along,” Maraline said, “but yes, yes a thousand times yes.  He has been so much more charming since he left, and on my visit.  I think, I believe he may propose on my next.”

Philip prodded at the venison roast that had been placed before the children at the table, and then took a cut.  “Seems a bit lacking,” he commented.

“Hunters have been struggling finding many deer in the north woods,” Adrien said as he looked for a suitable cut for his own tastes.

“Is the herd thin this year?” Charles asked.

“It looks as though something has been hunting,” Adrien answered, “no one is sure what.  More than a few corpses picked clean, but the trackers have had little luck identifying what is to blame.”

“Wolves perhaps?” Philip offered.

“Doesn’t seem that way,” Adrien said.  “Been over a century since there were wolves in the forests around Broken Hill anyway.”

“Maybe a mountain lion has come down from the higher hills?’ Charles suggested.

“Perhaps,” Adrien said.  “Or several.  The occasional mountain lion hasn’t thinned the heard this much though.”

“There are wolves east of the mountains aren’t there?”  Kiannae offered.

“There are quite a few things east of the mountains,” Adrien offered.  “I suppose with all our attempts to clear the pass something could have come over.  Seems quite the trek though.  It would explain why the trackers haven’t been able to identify the culprit, if it is something they are not familiar with.”

“Hopefully it is nothing dire,” Katrisha offered.

“I would hope not,” Adrien said uncomfortably.  “I don’t know if dire animals are known for keeping to themselves though.  Very teritorial.  The hunters have not been bothered, just coming up short of game.”

“I’m not sure,” Kiannae said.  “I don’t think all dire creatures are the same.  Perhaps this one has decided not to meddle with humans.” 

“I still prefer to think it is mountain lions,” Adrien said taking another bite.  “Far less unsettling.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 15th, 645 E.R.

Laurel stood on the western wall of the Castle at Broken Hill, looking out over the sunset.  He drew a deep breath from the cool spring air, and ignored the sound of footsteps behind him, presuming it was merely a guard on his rounds.

“Good evening,” came Arlen’s voice in greeting.

Laurel turned from his position, and considered the Knight Commander with a somewhat perplexed expression.  The two had never been particularly friendly, more likely to ignore one another unless official necessity required otherwise.

“To you as well, Arlen,” he offered.

“What brings you to the wall this evening?” Arlen asked.

Laurel turned back to the sunset.  “Merely a desire for some fresh air,” Laurel answered, puzzling over the possible reasons the man had to make small talk with him.  None immediately came to mind.

“I felt the same.  Took a patrol from one of the guards.  He didn’t much complain.”  He paused a moment, and leaned into another notch in the wall.  “Quite concerning, the reports from the north wood,” Arlen offered.

“It is,” Laurel agreed.  “I’m growing convinced we should issue orders not to travel alone, or on foot, and see that coaches are manned by a soldier.”

“Yes, that does seem prudent,” Arlen consented without argument.  There was another long pause.   “Have you considered the possible futures of your two girls?” Arlen asked pointedly, and rather out of the blue.

“I spend a great deal of time considering many aspects of such,” Laurel offered measuredly.

“Theirs is an odd lot; inheritance and illegitimacy, education and limited position.  There will be complexity in finding them good matches.”

“That will be their affair when they are old enough to consider it.”

“Which could be sooner than you imagine.  How disappointing – will you really leave the disposition of their future to their fickle hearts?”

“Theirs is a precarious position – in truth a good match is still a bad one.  As mages, the possible influence they can inherit chafes with the limits of such authority permitted.  I will certainly not go without some comment on their selections, but truly the awkward nature of their position in my estimation allows no merit in forcing them against their own affinity, save if I believe either to have made a very bad choice.”

“So you would not object then, to either being courted by a knight’s son?”

“If it is his wish, and with their tolerance, surely.  Though few such young men have not found a way to run afoul of their tempers, which I have – with some difficulty – retrained.  I would expect any position conscious family to consider them a poor match.”

“Position, and propriety are not in agreement surely.  They are, as we agree, a very mixed affair, but their wealth – held in trust – and the sketchy right to land now freshly returning to worth as rain falls again in the north, could surely turn the eye of some.”

“Of you?” Laurel said without too clear an air of disapproval, but more certainly one of disbelief.  “I would hardly think anything about them to your liking – or you in want for capital, political, or otherwise.  You have after all styled yourself down, not up.”

“My standing is an act of choice – of conscious decision to be where I feel myself most needed.  This does not mean I – or I will admit much more fervently my wife – are above or below considering all possibilities.  I will admit the merit of extending my family’s influence beyond Wesrook.  The north has floundered for generations at the permission of the crown – but it is only that – permission.  Better use could be put to that land, and perhaps the right suitor could guide the elder of the two?  Which is that, by way of curiosity?”

“I say that there is no evidence on their part to gauge.  It is best to assume any inheritance equally divided when they are of proper age.”

“Then I will admit – without preference myself – of late my son has not looked unfavorably upon the one that loves the snow.”

“This would be as much a surprise to me as to her.  You know well the clashes the two have had.”

“Young men, are, as young women, temperamental in their own way.  I am sure that each has maintained some animosity upon some varied chain of wrongs, each committed in turn for the last.  Still – it is my understanding that Katrisha has made some moves to mend that affair.”

“Some, long ago, at my urging.  I do not think it has change as much as you hope, but the cycle of anger between the two needed to be addressed.  I do love my dear girl, but she is more than capable of doing harm to a grown knight had she sufficient incentive – or folly.”

“While I do preference a woman that knows a humble disposition, I will not deny some admiration for her power.  Strength has its merits, even if it expresses itself belligerently.  I think this something adjustable yet in her disposition – children are in my opinion more likely to be similar, than different.  The importance of directing a young woman towards feminine activities is to prepare her for those natural proclivities, as womanhood comes upon her.”

“I have not found this at all to be the case,” Laurel countered.  “Though I do agree on the first part, I have not found a young woman to change in any particular way that a young man does not.”

“And you have much experience on this matter?”  Arlen seemed incredulous to Laurel’s credentials of judging children.

“More than one might expect.  I had first of all a sister – and was placed such to observe her coming of age.  I have also seen the glimpses of young notables across this world, as I might see them some years separated between meetings, during my travels.  The seeds of youth most often grow into the adult in my estimation.”

“Yet you do so little to correct your charges to the proper path?”

“I do all that I can in this regard,” Laurel stated tersely.  “They are not to be humble wives relegated to some back room.  The girls you enquire of have gifts to make mine seem pale.  They need a managed temper, restraint, clarity of purpose, intention and thought, as well as a desire to be meaningful.  There is little place in them for idle reliance on a man.  I assure you it is better that a man marry up to them, than the reverse.”

“We shall keep then our own council on the matter.  You however do not object?”

“That I leave to them.  Consider that if they do, I will not hear of undue persistence.”

“Nor should you expect it.  I am, I admit, more asking at my wife’s insistence.  She has been enamored with the idea ever since having met them again in Wesrook.”

“Then guardedly,” Laurel laughed in spite of himself, “I say, let the boy try to get in their better graces.  I’ll have no qualms with him at least making peace.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 12th, 645 E.R.

Mercu considered his opponent shrewdly.  She showed no signs of seeing the trap set for her, and he was quite sure that if she had not been warned, she would not see it coming.  He might have felt guilty for being so ruthless against a girl a quarter his age, if she hadn’t already proven herself more than an adequate challenge.  He reminded himself that while what sat before him was a thirteen year old, she was in many ways at least his equal, and in some his superior, particularly, and vastly regarding magic.  The small twinge of jealousy for her gift was more than enough to alleviate any shred of guilt.

Kiannae eyed the chess board before her, Mercu’s queen was so tempting where it sat in reach of one of her pawns.  She couldn’t fathom why he had made the move, it had cost her a knight, but hardly a fair trade for a queen.  Convinced it couldn’t hurt her, and that it would put Mercu dangerously close to checkmate she took his queen, and set it proudly beside her small collection of his pieces.

“Why are they called Rooks?” Kiannae asked.  “I mean we have Wesrook, and South Rook, and all those, but we call the towers here…towers.”

“Also isn’t it Tower of Wesrook?” Katrisha cut in from across the room.

“Actually, the mystery goes both ways,” Mercu said, hesitating from his move to answer.  “It’s an old Osyrean word meaning rock.  The earliest version of chess came with the Magi down from Osyrae.  The legends say that Queen Navi not only was a master of the game the first time she played it, but reinvented it, and that the modern version is hers.  Those are the legends any way.  Some propose that the Rooks are named such, because they are built ‘on the rock,’ or are the rock upon which things are built.  Which then is truly named for which?”

Mercu shrugged, and then returned to his move.  He nudged a pawn into the last row on Kiannae’s side of the board, reached for his freshly captured queen, and switched the two pieces out.  “Check mate,” he declared.

“You…you can’t do that,” Kiannae protested indignantly.

“He can,” Katrisha laughed, which made her wince.  She rubbed her shoulder, which was still sore from their morning practice.  The little black cat in her lap looked up in objection over her petting herself, instead of him, and hopped down.  “He pulled that one on me the other day while you got bored watching.  I made him show me the rule in a book.  Any pawn which makes it to the last row may be promoted to any captured piece.  I was a bit annoyed, but I beat him anyway, barely.”

“Still, you tricked me,” Kiannae sighed.

“Such is the way of pawns,” Mercu laughed, “some times, when they are very lucky, they may become queens.”  He reached down to pet Mar who had begun rubbing up against his leg insistently.

“Aren’t pawns foot soldiers?” Kiannae said still defiantly trying to escape her loss.

“Pikemen shield bearer’s, technically,” Mercu corrected.  “At least that’s what they became at some point.  The naming gets more interesting than rooks really.  Particularly if you go back to the original Osyrean version…”

“Aren’t all soldiers, particularly pikemen, men?” Kiannae prodded, ignoring the distraction.

“I suppose I’ve never heard of a female pikeman,” Mercu admitted.  “I once met a woman who was a Knight of the Empire thought, there was also definitely a paladin Queen of Palentine…”

“Then how can a man become a queen,” Kiannae declared victoriously, and crossed her arms, hanging on the point of the pikeman.

“It’s not stopped some kings,” Mercu said thoughtfully, and Mar gave up, unsatisfied with the amount of attention he was receiving for his effort, and wandered off to fall asleep in the sun.

“Wait…what?” Kiannae demanded shaking her head in confusion.

Mercu laughed, but there was something awkward there.  “The queen is often the king’s closest advisor and confidant,” Mercu said dodging his own joke, “some Kings have reigned without a queen consort, and instead surrounded themselves with men who fill most of her duties.”

“Sounds lonely,” Katrisha interjected.

Mercu laughed.  “I think every one I am aware of eventually relented to have a queen, if only to bear him an heir.”

“I wouldn’t be queen to any man who accepted me only to bear him children,” Katrisha declared indignantly.

“Good on you then,” Mercu laughed.

Kiannae sighed, and knocked over her king where it stood.  “You win again,” she said shaking her head.

“Don’t feel so bad,” Katrisha said comfortingly, leaned over, and hugged Kiannae.  “I’ve only beat him three times, and you’ve gotten him twice.  You also beat Laurel, which I think even Mercu hasn’t done.”

“I suppose,” Kiannae permitted, still obviously unsatisfied.

“I beat him once,” Mercu said defensively, “years ago though, in a moving wagon.  We still argue if that one counts.  He swears one of the pieces shifted when the wheel hit a pothole.”

Kiannae laughed at that.  “Ok, I think I’d be more annoyed by that than not knowing about the pawn trick.”

“Sure take his side,” Mercu laughed.  “I still swear that piece stayed put.”

The twins giggled when he held an indigent pose for some time.  He glanced back at them and smirked.  “I was thinking of going down to the village today,” he said as he leaned back and stretched.  “If you two would like to join me.  I need some new paints, and I believe you both could use some new notebooks.”

“Alright,” Kiannae said excitedly at the rare chance to leave the castle.

“Sure,” Katrisha said hesitantly, “could we visit the jeweler as well?”

“Perhaps,” Mercu said shaking his head. “I suppose I owe you two some small commission from Baron Carlen’s portrait for pointing out that his favorite overcoat has seven silver buttons, and not six.  Nothing over two silver pieces though.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Procuring a coach proved easy for Mercu for once.  Though what lurked in the north woods remained open for debate, an abundance of caution had insured that all travel to, and from the castle was by coach, driven by at least one soldier.

Katrisha was deep in thought, fiddling with a complex spell of no obvious purpose when Kiannae shot bolt upright from a lazy daydream.  The ride suddenly became bumpy as the coach lurched forward.

“What’s going on?” Mercu demanded startled from his own abstract thoughts.

“Horses are spooked,” Eran called back from the head of the coach.

Kiannae grabbed hold of the window, and stared out into the forest.  “Oh fates,” she cried, and pulled back into the coach wide eyed, her arms clutched around herself.  Katrisha barely moved into a position to see a flash of something large rush from the forest, before it vanished from view towards the head of the coach.  There was a loud neigh of a horse, that sounded more like a scream, and another more frightened sounding one.

There were some decidedly loud, and vulgar curses from Eran, and the coach shuddered and swerved, tossing its passengers about, and out of their seats.  It tipped slightly, jerked around straight, and came to a trembling stop.

Mercu got wobbly up from the floor of the coach, and looked out the window only to see a dead horse beside them, and a large white cat with black patches tearing into its prey.  It glanced up from its kill, and fixed upon him.  Mercu immediately threw himself back into the sheltered shadows of the carriage, and was white as a sheet.  He tried to gage what he had seen, the head of the cat had been as large as horse’s, its body more than half the size.

As if to confirm his perceptions there was a soft thud at the door, and the vast head presented itself in the window.  Closer examination showed scales along the cat’s nose, and brow.  “Oi,” came a call from outside, and a stone struck the side of the cat’s head, and landed in the cairage.  The cat instantly snapped away from the coach after its assailant.

“What in the abyss is that?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.

“Dire cat,” Mercu said steadying himself, “cougar I think.”  He moved cautiously to the window, and looked out.

Eran was clearly already wounded from the fall, and the cat’s first pass.  Though his armor had taken some of the blow – his tunic was ripped away revealing scarred leather underneath, and some blood seeping over it.  He was holding his sword, pointed somewhat feebly at the beast that was easily larger than him.  The cat seemed to be favoring one leg, and not ready to underestimate Eran again.

Katrisha forced her way next to Mercu who tried to push her back, but she had none of it.  The cat leapt at Eran, and Katrisha thrust out a hand, the cat flailed awkwardly in the air, and fell just short of Eran who swung, but the lynx managed to lurch back, bristling, and avoided the swing.  It pulled itself sluggishly free of of the spell Katrisha had formed, and paced slightly at the edge.

Katrisha opened the door, and Mercu tried to grab hold of her, but found that she easily pulled free of his grasp.  Rather than keeping Katrisha in the coach Mercu fell out.  Kiannae was right behind her sister, leaping over the prone man.  The cougar glanced rapidly between Eran, and the twins, snarled, and rushed with blinding speed at the two girls, and the dazed lump of a man sprawled behind them.

Katrisha tried her spell again, but the cat barely slowed, and with a loud crack Kiannae narrowly threw up another spell.  The force sent wild ripples through the fur, and skin of the cat, but pushed it back only a few feet.  Eran rushed to strike the cat from behind skewering its right flank with his sword, earning a terrible hiss.  The cat spun, catching Eran hard in the chest with a swipe, and threw him back in a tumbling ball.  His sword clatteried across the ground away from him.

Katrisha shot a bolt of frost through the cat’s front right shoulder, earning ear splitting howl.  It flipped around, and threw itself at the twins again, but sailed to the side as Kiannae threw all the force she could muster into it.  The hasty spell however threw as much force into the surrounding air, and quite a bit into Kiannae herself who flew back into Mercu.  He had only begun to get up, and was knocked against the coach painfully, but cushioned her impact.

The sudden hurricane gust of wind toppled Katrisha, and though dazed and cautious the cougar was quickly upright from its tumble.  It lept for the prone girl who threw up another barrier without caution.  She could feel her skin sting as her barrier powerfully pulled all energy out of the air around her – heat, and movement alike.  It was like being stuck in freezing pitch, but it stopped the cat for a moment above her, and gave her just a burning cold breath to think.

She had a tremendous amount of energy at her disposal at that moment, as the spell was all but stopping the cat from even falling.  Katrisha tried for fire, sending a profound burst of burning energy gathered from her barrier up into the cat, and at the same moment threw herself sideways, stealing what little energy was left.  She tumbled harshly across the ground.

The cat roared in agony, and Katrisha saw in several swirling glimpses as it bathed in flame, before she came to rest dazed on her face, her head spinning. She tried to tell up from down for a second, and then looked back at the cat which thrashed, hissed, and screamed, trying to put out the flames in its fur.

A bolt of lightning momentarily blinded Katrisha, and staggered the already struggling cougar which fell back, and limped, but still pulled upright.  Another dazzling strike from Kiannae again blinded all, and stunned the cat.  Yet even a third seemed to phased the cat less.  Katrisha took a breath, and focused everything on precision.  She sent a bolt of razor sharp ice larger than both arms rushing at the cat while it was still shaking off her sister’s attacks.

The spear tore through the chest of the cat, which did not roar, but threw open its mouth as though trying to.  It fell trembling to the ground, shuddered violently, and then stopped with only a few further small twitches.  Mercu glanced at Kiannae who was not too much the worse for wear, but had a look of shock, and horror on her face.  He followed her gaze, and frantically rushed towards Katrisha.

This struck Katrisha oddly for a moment as she slumped on one arm.  She hurt a bit more than after her morning training session, but also felt rather numb.  She noticed something wet, and reached up to her face as she instinctively closed her right eye.  Her fingers came back with blood, and she stared at them a bit uncertainly.  “Huh,” she said even as Mercu was knelt down in front of her, and wiped her face gently with a white cloth pulled from a vest pocket.

“Are you alright?” Mercu demanded.

“I…I think so?” Katrisha muttered, and opened her eye again after the blood was wiped away.  Mercu held the cloth to her head.

Kiannae was only a moment behind Mercu.  She pushed Mercu’s hand away, and was quick to try her hand at healing the gash on her sister’s forehead.  This hurt slightly, and Katrisha recoiled, strained muscles, and bruises suddenly making themselves known as shock wore off.

“Stay still,” Kiannae said firmly.

Eran walked up nursing his own wounds, and sat down near by.  He faced the cat, and not quite trusting it to stay dead.  “You know what you are doing?” he asked.

“Not really,” Kiannae admitted.

“Stop the bleeding,” Eran said, “I’ll give it a look after I’m in better shape.”

Mercu took his eyes off Katrisha, and looked at the cat, the dead horse, and the coach.  He flopped down himself, and moved to wipe his face, only to reconsider it, and hand the blood soaked cloth to Kiannae.  He started breathing very quickly for a moment, and then calmed again.  “So that’s what has been hunting all the deer,” he remarked shakily.

“Was,” Eran agreed.  “Hopefully it was the only one.”

“Should be,” Mercu said hopefully.  “Most dire animals are solitary.”

“Unless they have young,” Eran countered.

“Oh please don’t remind me of that.”

“I don’t think it did, we probably would have found a den of kits.”

“Yes, let’s pretend that for now.”

“Second horse got away, but she’s long gone.”

“So walking then – back, or forward?”

“Forward, two thirds of the way there, the bridge is just around the bend.”

Mercu looked around, recognized where they were, and nodded.

Katrisha started crying, and Kiannae looked flustered for her sister’s movement interfering with her healing.  Then relented just to hug her close, deciding it was good enough for the moment.  “It’s ok,” she said, “we did it.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Four beleaguered, and moderately bloodied travelers stumbled into Brokhal drawing quite a lot of looks, and a few who rushed to their aid.  Katrisha had ultimately been carried most of the trip as even with Eran’s healing her ankle was not up to the long walk.  This however had taken alternation between Eran, and Mercu, as the prior had his own injuries to nurse, and the latter could only do so for short periods.

As the four answered the questions of concerned citizens Eran let Katrisha down, who hobbled slightly over to a nearby porch stair, and sat.  Kiannae was immediately beside her twin, and hugged her close.  Katrisha had been alternating between stony faced, troubled, and elated in the wake of the battle.  She had fallen asleep in Mercu’s arms at one point, only to awake with a start, and almost be dropped as she had grabbed his collar.

“We killed it,” Katrisha muttered, as Kiannae leaned into her.

“It was trying to kill us,” Kiannae said somewhat frustratedly.  It was not the first time Katrisha had alluded to some remorse over the fight, but the most clear.

“I just…” Katrisha sighed.  “I wish we didn’t have to.  It was beautiful.”

“And if we hadn’t, what of the next travelers it attacked?”

Katrisha clung a little more tightly, but said nothing.

“It’s our duty, to protect others.”

Katrisha sniffed somewhat determinedly.  “You are right.”  She ran a finger along the scar on her forehead, it would fade with more healing, but such subtlety had not been practical under the circumstances.  The twins lacked the skill, and Eran had exhausted himself between the fight, and his own injuries.  “We must always do our part,” Katrisha added firmly.

“Always,” Kiannae affirmed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Two hours were consumed talking with the Knight Commander of Brokhal, a man who in spite of his position rarely left the town to visit the castle.  He was a stern, and haggard man, who asked many of his questions repeatedly, but as he got the same story each time out of the four, his expression had slowly softened to one of bewilderment.  He was not used to dealing with mages, and had begun to stare dubiously at the twins by the end.

Once that was finished Eran had left their company to recruit people to look for the second horse, clean up the remains of the dire cougar, and recover the coach.  Mercu had pressed that Eran should have someone more skilled look at his wounds, only to receive a darkly humorous glare that got a knowing chuckle out him.

In spite of his own understanding of Eran’s disinterest in seeking out the town’s healer, Mercu decided it was prudent to get Katrisha better looked at.  This however did not work out, as Idolus was not in.  Katrisha insisted she was fine, though she still favored her injured leg, and the trio began the shopping they had originally come for, with Katrisha taking frequent occasions to rest.

Katrisha sat on a shop step, and idly watched the way filaments danced above her outstretched hand.  She had started to form a spell boredly, but reached indecision as to which, and became fascinated instead by catching her own magic half formed.  It seemed to form little crystals that grew, and crumbled, and tried to stabilize.  This wanted to become ice, to form a familiar spell but she held it off.  She kept it from resolving as long as she could, and then suddenly it snapped to a thin lattice of frozen air that drifted a moment before falling apart.  There had been something there more than random shapes Katrisha was sure, but what eluded her.

Kiannae stood by a railing, and glaneced at her sister.  Shook her head, reassuring herself everything would be fine.  She stared at her upturned index finger and filaments licked off it, almost like fire up a candle wick, broke free and formed a wavering flame, a tangled knot of entropic madness at it’s heart, ripping apart the air, and burning what was left.  There was no smoke, and the heat was mostly directed upward.  Then the air snapped cold, turned to fractured glittering ice with a sizzling center of liquid air in the flames shape.  Then the energy reversed, and the flame came back to life.  She made it look quite easy, but in truth it was practice, because it seemed almost a little harder than it should be.  The flame was a bit easier, but turning air to crystal was finicky.  Something Kat did with such ease.

“Beware the sins of the flesh, the distractions that bind us to this world, and leave us to fall into the abyss when our lives come to their end,” came a call from a man in brown robes trimmed in while walking down the street.  “Beware the sins of the dragons, whose dark magic maintain them in this world, but at what cost?”

“What is your name, and these sins you speak of?” Katrisha asked idly when the passing preacher glanced down at her.

“I am Idolus Syberus,” the man said with some surprise, “and I speak of the decadent sins of desire child, the distractions from the path of ascension, and eternal life.”

“If desire is a sin, then is not the very desire for eternal life a distraction?” Kiannae asked incredulously.  She was displeased to find that the healer they had sought earlier had been absent to waste time on preaching through the streets.  She had never heard a good word spoken of him, and both had heard his name before.

“The desire for the heavens, to ascend into the light is no sin,” Idolus said irritably, “it is what will raise us above this temporal existence, this fleeting life at the edge of the abyss.  It is the very purpose of our elevated species to ascend above the animal world that made us.”

“Nothing can rise, without something equal descending,” Katrisha said absently – suddenly glad to have not had to spend more time with the man to be healed.  “You can not create, or destroy energy itself, only move it, borrow it, or suppress it.”  Katrisha formed a brilliant ball of light in one hand, and a shimmering shard of frozen air in the other.  “For this light, this soul to ascend to the heavens, then what is this that must as surely descend into the abyss to provide the energy of ascension?”

“The flesh,” Idolus said sternly, and suddenly realized who he was speaking to.  He had barely caught glimpses of the two over the years, yet two young, identical mages could be no others.  His airs grew more disdainful.  “The uselessness of the physical body.  The vessel that is shed, that we might walk into the light.”

“There is nothing material in the aether,” Kiannae laughed, “this is why it is ‘aethereal’ after all, so how do you propose to walk into it?”

“Figuratively,” the Idolus growled, “our minds might at first perceive it as walking though, to put it into contexts we are familiar with.  Or flying.  The life eternal is what we make of it.”  He said as Mercu emerged from the shop behind the girls.  His ire deepened, and his frown turned to an abject scowl as he recognized him.

“So then, could we perceive the life eternal, as life is lived here in the mortal world?” Mercu mused on the man’s statement, “do we sacrifice the now, for the dream, and then live the life we had forsaken in such illusion?”

“Those who will live the life eternal care not for the material world,” Idolus said indignantly, “they would have no desire to recreate it.”

“Desire or not, I fear they would not have the imagination,” Mercu laughed, “and what proof do you offer that the aether is a place of bliss, and goodness?  What makes this place of brilliant energy, any less terrifying than the idea of stepping into a roaring fire?”

“That which is not of flesh need not fear the flame,” the priest said dismissively.

Kiannae drew a lattice of shimmering light in the air.  “If this is a soul,” she said.  She formed a flame and passed it through the swirling lattice.  It dissolved and coiled, and twisted.  “Though it is not of flesh, and it may not burn, none the less within the flame it is torn apart.  Is this land of light, this glorious heaven you wish to ascend to, eternal life, or merely a quick road to destruction?”

“Might not the fall into the abyss be the more peaceful end?” Mercu added questioningly, “where all become one within its depths, rather than scattered to the winds by the flames of heaven.  If this is even the fate to come of course, as none has ever peered past the Veil, not even the ghosts may speak to what lays beyond, nor your precious Avatar.”

“The Avatar is proof of the life eternal!” Idolus snapped.

“The Avatar is a sin of presumed eternal life in this so called material world,” Mercu cut back. “What difference is there between him and the dragons?”

“I….I will listen to no more of your sacrilege,” Idolus fumed, and stormed off.  In his irate haste he dropped one of the books he carried.

Katrisha got up a bit feebly to her feet, and scooped up the lost book before Idolus could realize he dropped it.  She dusted it off, and admired the elaborate S imprinted in silver on its cover.  She had seen somewhere before.  “You dropped this,” she called after him tauntingly.  Idolus stopped, turned, and glared at Katrisha, who walked up to him with a slight limp, and handed him the book.  For the first time he noticed the scar on her forehead, and the blood on her collar.

Idolus paused to consider if he had any duty to heal her, but she seemed above the point he was bound to intervene.  He reached down, and took the book from her, but as he did he brushed her hand, and a strange look of shock replaced the anger on his face.  For just a moment he stared at her blankly.  He retracted his arm slowly, backed up a step, turned, and all but ran.

“What in the seven rivers was that about?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said slightly unnerved.  “I think I liked his expression better when he was scowling.”

“Bare him no mind girls,” Meruc sighed.  “You have all that you needed yes?”

“Do you?” Katrisha asked, and sat back down patting a medium sized stack of books, and eyeing a rather small bundle under Mercu’s arm.

“Enough paint to finish my current projects, yes,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I don’t like to buy too much at once, it get’s more fussy to work with as it ages.”

“So about the jeweler…” Katrisha prodded.

“Yes,” Mercu said eyeing the girls shrewdly, “It seems the heroes of the day deserve more than two silver.  Plus you gave me such a nice opportunity to irritate Idolus.”

“Really?” Katrisha said excitedly.

“Yes, but don’t let it go to your head and do it again,” Mercu laughed.

“Which?” Kiannae pressed.

“Either.  Idolus is sneakier than a cat, and don’t let his appearances fool you, he has claws.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Upon returning to the castle all had changed, and washed from the trials of their day, and Laurel had been stuck between commending, and reprimanding his charges for their deeds.  He had listened at length to the account of what had happened as he finished healing Katrisha, and removed the scar from her forehead.  He had ultimately consented to Mercu’s interpretation that Eran would surely have died if it had not been for Katrisha’s quick intervention.  The girls however had been dismissed for whatever remained of the conversation.

That evening the twins sat in one of their window seats, by the light of the setting sun.  Katrisha admired the large green round of glass set in her new silver pin.  Kiannae sat opposite her, and fiddled absently with a delicate silver flower pendant on a matching fine chain.  Mercu for his part was behind a medium sized canvas, working to finish a portrait he had started of the girls weeks before.  

“Earlier,” Kiannae suddenly started, and then seemed to think for a moment, “you seemed to know that Clarion priest quite well, that you were so happy to irritate him.”

“Yes, Idolus comes to court now and then,” Mercu said as he cleaned, and switched his brush, “he never speaks himself, since he has no real authority in the kingdom.  Always has Sir Arlen speak for him, usually some wild accusation about insuring that the Clarion’s are properly represented.  Complete with reminders about how many people of the kingdom adhere to the faith.  It’s nothing but thinly veiled threats of religious uprising if you ask me…but it’s always so carefully worded in diplomatic terms.”

“So he’s a bad man then?” Katrisha asked.

“He’s never done any direct harm to anyone,” Mercu said biting the handle of his brush thoughtfully, “no more harm than any other Clarion preacher of course.  He also frequently volunteers for expeditions – I think to win favor over any sense of duty.  Laurel has had to put up with him more than I.  Still gets people to waste their lives, sacrifice their own happiness, to harass one another over living their lives, all for promises of forever…that, well…you know the rest.  I don’t think much of the offer myself, as I’ve told you, nor does Laurel.  Bad might still be a strong word, but misguided, counterproductive to the best interest of the people, those all work.”

“Why do people believe in what the Clarions teach?” Kiannae asked irritably.

“The common folk, I can only assume don’t know any better, never have time or pressing enough reason to reconsider what they are taught by their parent’s growing up, or listen to cleaver fiery words of a preacher, and are taken in by the idea,” Mercu said sadly.  “As to what compels those with the gift, to be quite fair there is no real proof the Clarions are wrong.  Not in a material sense at least, just as there is no proof they are right.  Years of being taught what to think, of focusing on their spirit and gift, and forsaking ‘the flesh,’ I suppose they might not realize any more that they are more than a spirit trapped in their mortal bonds.  It might not seem a loss to give up a world they have already let go, to live forever as pure thought, or whatever nonsense.”

“Don’t they learn about magic, don’t they learn to see the flaws in their ideas?” Katrisha said sadly.

“Oh, there are countless Clarion Arcanists, and even high mages of the Council that adhere to Clarion teaching,” Mercu laughed darkly.  “A clever mind can build all the more convincing excuses to believe what they have invested themselves in.  They can build up their ideas about as well as we can tear them down.  Since there is no proof, only conjecture, and opinion.”

“Are they ever happy?” Kiannae asked with a frown.

“Happiness is relative,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I’ve seen enough be smug and self satisfied when they think they are winning an argument against a non-believer.  Really, not all adherents live by the letter of the doctrine, they take this guideline, or that rule, and call it good enough.  Some of those seem happy enough, when someone isn’t challenging their world view.  Some, the ones I can almost respect, just shrug other’s opinions off, and leave them be.”

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Chapter 15

I see a child who stands before,
ancient eyes dead and hollow,
he longs for glories lost to men,
this abyss bound princely one,

he skulks in crypts beneath his home,
his heart to dark schemes doth turn,
the blood of kings and common man,
shall stain claw sword and hand,

as shadow he is betrayer to one and all,
his hunger unmatched in mortal downfall,
he becomes what was not again to be,
and brings an end to the way of peace.

– Diary of Cassandra Alm, 621 E.R.

Marks of the Passed

Coria 39th, 644 E.R.

Mercu idly stroked a small ball of black fur held in his arms, and it purred contentedly for the attention.  He didn’t like the situation he was in.  The delivery had come to him explicitly, but with no real explanation save the origin – a final mocking stab of an old woman he barely knew, and certainly did not like.  He lifted the tiny kitten up and looked it in the eye for the third time since it had arrived.  It didn’t seem evil, or deranged.  In fact it could hardly have been more docile.

He tried to think who he could pawn it off on before the girls discovered it, and invariably fawned over it for the adorable little creature that it was.  Not that he thought it was necessarily a bad idea that the girls have a pet, but the source was questionable.  The only contact the girls had ever had with Cassandra was a singular unsettling encounter, and Mercu could not guess the reason behind her parting gifts.  He’d yet to even thoroughly examine the contents of a trunk that had come along with the cat.  There were several books, and smaller boxes, but no note.

He cringed as his door opened, but was relieved to only see Laurel walk in, who gave the tiny ball of fluff a strange look.  “A kitten?” he said in a curious questioning tone.

“Your grasp of the obvious is astounding,” Mercu muttered.

“It’s adorable…but is it what I think?” Laurel asked moving to examine the cat more closely.

“Yes, probably,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “It seems the same Cassandra owned when we knew her on the road all those years ago.”

“Impressive work then,” Laurel said curiously, “but what is it doing here?”

“Outliving its owner, it seems.” Mercu sighed.  “I feel, I don’t know, dirty somehow – besmirching the parting gift of a dead woman, but I have a hard time thinking it’s a genuine thought on her part.”

“It’s just a cat, whatever magic may have been done to keep it a kitten for so long,” Laurel said incredulously.  “You don’t think it’s been trained to kill or something, do you?” he laughed, but stopped to consider if that was a legitimate possibility.  His knowledge in the field of shaper magic was spotty enough to give him a moment of pause.

“No,” Mercu said shaking his head.  “Cassandra was insufferable, full of herself, but harmless.  I can’t imagine what she intended though.  Perhaps I was the only person she could think to send the poor old thing to.  It’s been in the custody of the staff while we have been traveling.  I think that trunk is possibly everything else she owned.”  He nodded across the room.

“Don’t worry too much then I guess, though we should keep it away from the girls, it can’t have long left to live,” Laurel said with a frown.

“Well, I’m not even sure it’s the same cat,” Mercu said uncertainly.  “I’ve read a bit about shaped creatures over the years, some of them live for centuries, others have fairly mundane life spans.  Anything is possible.  I suppose tomorrow it could sprout wings and fly away.”

“Technically…” Laurel said trailing off.  “Give it here I want to see if I can work out how much longer it has before we decide what best to do with it,” Laurel took the kitten, which immediately rubbed it’s head against his chest, before curling more comfortably into his arm.  “Do you even happen to know its name?”

“I’m sure I heard Cassandra call it by name a dozen times, but that was so long ago,” Mercu said trying to think back.  “I think it might be Mar’etten.”

“She named it after him of all…” Laurel laughed.  “Who in the burning heavens names a cat after a greater black dragon?”

“Am I now the expert on the minds of mad seers?  Maybe she thought it would one day betray her, and spoil her evil schemes of world conquest?”

“Or wind up living with the enemy?” Laurel laughed uncomfortably.

“I hardly think she ever thought of me as an enemy.  Try as I might have, I always got the unsettling impression she liked me.”

“You think everyone likes you,” Laurel chided.

“Don’t they?” Mercu said with a wounded glance.

“Most do, but don’t play, you are not so daft to think Arlen – for instance – has any tolerance for you at all,” Laurel countered.

“Ah yes, Arlen.  He is stewing quite grimly,” Mercu noted casually.

“What else is new?” Laurel shook his head.

“He’s the look of a man playing chess, and losing badly.  I don’t trust it.”

“What can he do?” Laurel pressed.

“For the moment nothing, but Fenlin was a friend to him, and nothing tells me that Arlen is anything but a patient man when it comes to grudges.”

“I would hardly call it patience,” Laurel countered.

“Something less noble then.” Mercu sighed.  “I stand by the point.”

“And what would you have us do?”

“Watch him?” Mercu shrugged.

“That, good sir, is your job, or have you forgotten?”

“Yes, well, it does little good for me to watch if I do not report,” Mercu answered with some humor.

Mar grew restless, and began to climb the front of Laurel’s robe, to his clear displeasure, but he seemed uncertain how to dissuade the cat as it crawled onto his shoulder precariously.  “Were my arms not good enough you, troublesome thing?” he demanded, dodging a snaking tail.

Mercu got up, and grabbed the kitten by the scruff of the neck, rendering it momentarily placid, and set it back in Laurel’s arms.  “Do not worry, I am adept in the ways of handling errant cats.”

“Yes, I am well aware,” Laurel cut back.

“Speaking of grudges,” Mercu frowned.  “Are you to now start holding such things over me?  She is such a lovely woman, and hardly a threat.  I assure you, her heart is many other places before me, not the least of which is some man she will not name – most curious that – and mine still is most assuredly where you last checked.”

“So you are not her only attachment, outside of that woman that shares her bed?” Laurel asked curiously.

“I’ve only the confidence from her to know of the matter in vaguest terms, but I will wager his name is John,” Mercu said pointedly.  The look in his eyes said he had more assurance than that, and that he was even in their confidence playing the truth of it close to the chest.

Laurel was shrewd then.  “That could be trouble.  Is this a recent development?”

“No,” Mercu said firmly.  “Very long past by my estimation, but lingering.  First love, I would guess.  The matter had that sort of wistful quality to it.  The man in question surely plays a part in her manner about it though.  I’ve heard he was quite a rapscallion, and there are long faded whispers that would put him in the company of a Lucian girl in his youth.  Well, less faded after recent events I suppose.”

Laurel sighed, and softened.  “What you are, is useful, in more ways than one.  You know I do not feel right to judge, so forgive me my occasional displeasure on the matter, and a touch of ill humor?”

“So long as it is humor,” Mercu pressed kindly, rested his hand on Laurel’s shoulder and smiled, “then by all means, accuse me of all manner of feline knowledge.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 644 E.R.

“It’s not right,” Charles said rather out of the blue, having walked up on Katrisha in the upper court of Broken Hill.  They had not spoken since Wesrook, always a buffer of the new children from South Rook between them, mostly surrounding Charles.  It seemed an ill advised situation to permit, as much as they shared temperaments, but she did not speak her mind on the matter.  His declaration though seemed wildly devoid of context.

Katrisha turned to glare at him, more out of habit than specifically based on what he had said.  Though as it sunk in she became quite certain she should be annoyed with his words, and not just his presence.

“What gibberish are you on about now?” Katrisha demanded, narrowing her eyes at the irksome boy.

“That brother of yours,” Charles said in an almost dismissive tone, as though it should have been obvious.  This again caused as much irritation as the words themselves.

“What…” Katrisha started angrily, only to be interrupted by her own fears well before Charles.  Some part of her worried that others had come to the same suspicions she kept to herself after South Rook, but how.  No one else knew about what Varmun had told her.  She had found nothing in any books.

“He’s not much of a boy,” Charles answered, “more a girl than anything.  Should just call him your sister.”

Katrisha was more than a bit bemused.  Fully offended, but it was taking her a moment to process all the possible ways.  She wasn’t sure if she should be more defensive of Wren, insulted herself, or relieved that it was something so absurd.  “What possibly could be wrong about the way Wren is?  He’s sweet and kind, and more than a bit smarter than you.”

“He’ll never be a proper man,” Charles countered, “he’s having all that crushed out of him by those terrible women.”

Katrisha clenched her fist.  “Renae is a wonderful woman.  She loves Wren like a son.”  She was in no mood to hear more hatred for the Sisterhood after all that she had heard, and seen in South Rook.  Yet she was not surprised by the source, and suspected that South Rook had everything to do with riling Charles into his current snit.

“Like a daughter perhaps,” Charles countered, seeming smug as ever.  “They hate men, hate everything about men.  It’s why they lay with each other.  It’s not right for a boy to be there.  You should demand he be taken out of that awful place.”

“The only awful thing about that place, from all he has ever told me, is another boy,” Katrisha growled taking two firm steps towards Charles.  “Oh and he’s a boy alright, like you think they should be.  A bully, a brute, a nasty little piece of work.  Yes, everything a male should be, right?  Just like you.”  Katrisha’s aura could be felt even by one as ungifted as Charles, it was furious thing, oppressive, like a thick fog smothering him.  “Clearly they don’t crush the man out of them well enough up there.  Wren is, who Wren is.”

Charles stood his ground.  “If he wasn’t so weak, he wouldn’t have a problem.  They made him weak, like a girl.”  He insisted.

“Am I weak?” Katrisha snapped at Charles, stepping right up to him, her face in his.  He was a few inches taller than her, and yet oddly he felt very small just then.  “I could hurl your worthless hide across this courtyard with ease.”

“With magic,” Charles said defiantly, and defensively in the most unproductive sense.  It seemed a futile argument, and ill advised under the circumstances.

“And with leverage a smaller man, can throw a larger one to the ground,” Katrisha countered, “are we to judge only brutish force to be the measure of strength?  How about the fact I have not broken you.  That takes more strength than you could ever possess.  Men are weak.  In more ways than one.  The gifts of women are stronger, did you know?”

“What?” Charles asked a bit put off, by the seeming change of topic, and further by the assertion.

“Take any man, and any woman of the same lineage,” Katrisha explained very heatedly, and took several breaths, trying to calm herself with rational argument, “and seven out of ten of the women will have a stronger gift than the man – measurably, if not obviously. Many times in history training of women as mages has been limited, or outlawed.  Women were directed into the healing arts, yet this is not the reason you find so few men as healers.  Most simply cannot do it, they do not simply lack the temperament, they lack the power, the raw gift to be good healers.  They, are, weak.”

Katrisha watched Charles’ face.  It actually did seem new information to him, caught somewhere between disbelief, and understanding.  He looked as though he wished to question, to debate, to counter – but he knew nothing of it.  It grated against his prejudices, but he knew he was ignorant on the topic, and he did not doubt a word of how easily Katrisha could break him.  He was no mage, just a young noble.  He also really hadn’t meant to offend, and he struggled to understand it.  He had just said the truth as he saw it, the crime he saw in what had been made of her brother.  He hadn’t meant to ridicule him, rather his perceived treatment.  It had gone off track at some point, and then he had gotten carried away.

“I’m sorry,” he tried, not quite meekly, but with the tenor of one who knew they were in some peril.  He wasn’t really sorry, for he lacked the understanding of precisely what he should be apologizing for.  The world had an order as he understood it, men above women – and a boy lowered to a girl’s temperament he believed was wrong.  Yet as he struggled with it he did understand the unspoken order of the world, mages above commoners, perhaps even nobles.  It was a tricky hierarchy, the laws outlined it, but that was more fancy words than he had ever been good with.  The history was muddier.

Laurel served at the pleasure of the King, and the King reigned at the sufferance of the council.  A Court Mage served the King, but Charles had not been entirely deaf to the King, or to his own mother, ‘Those who lead, must serve those who follow.’  It did not quite seem to apply, and yet it stuck there in his thoughts.  Surely Laurel was above him.  It was more vague where his apprentice lay.  She was more powerful than he could ever be, perhaps even than his father…

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, and this time his voice was different.  For it sounded as though he at least thought he should mean it, even if he was still not sure why.

Katrisha’s face shifted.  Her rage abated, but not her disdain.  She walked away, with barely a further sidelong glance at Charles.  He watched her go with a curious opinion, that was not had for the first time.  She did not walk like a noble, nor like a servant.  Her grace was not lost on him, but it was not that of a lady of the court, nor of a young man.  It was proud, and singular – even perhaps distinct from her sister.

He did not like that thought particularly, but it did make some things easier, even if he was utterly terrible at moving events in that direction.  He steadied himself, and put it out of his mind.  He had other orders to deal with.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 4th, 644 E.R.

Kiannae peaked into Mercu’s room.  She had knocked, but guessed he wasn’t in to begin with.  She walked over to one of his bookcases, looking for a book Laurel told her he had borrowed from the tower library.  She was terribly bored, and Katrisha was constantly trying to make friends with the guests – or prisoners, depending how you framed it.  Neither girl liked them much, though Lukas was pleasant enough, but a bit quiet to be of any interest.  Kiannae couldn’t understand why Katrisha bothered.  The King surely wouldn’t keep them long, the maneuver had the intended effect, but it was not clear if it could persist.  Their enemies knew all too well what they were not capable of.  It was proprietary keeping them in check, not fear.

Kiannae did not see what she was looking for, and checked the next to no more success.  She considered it could have been on one of the upper shelves, but thought that unlikely.  She checked the desk, paying little attention to an open chest beside it.

There were several curious things strewn about, but no sign of the book.  She considered two stacks of cards, and picked one up.  The card was pleasant to look at – about the size of the palm of a man’s hand.  On the back an elaborate pattern surrounded a spiral formed of three lobes, one black, one red, one white, the last outlined half in each.  Red, and black were the colors the cards were printed in throughout, though fields of white formed a third color, always outlined in red or black to an edge.

It was obviously a printed work, stamped with the same clean lines over, and over again.  It was always distinct from hand done scribe work.  Kiannae could never understand why so many preferred scribed works to printed.  It was always crisper, and cleaner.  She turned the card over, her curiosity piqued.

On the face a variety of art was displayed, but there was some consistency.  In the upper left, and lower right corner of each card there was one of three symbols; a four pointed black star, a heart of red, or a flame of white.  Most were accompanied by a either a number, or a letter.  The primary color of the card seemed dictated by these symbols, but all used fields of each to artistic effect.

Each card that depicted persons seemed composed of two busts, blended at the midriff, and facing a different way from one another, some forward, some moonward, some sunward.  The joined busts each seemed a man on the one side, or a woman on the other.  Kiannae considered the letters, M, C, or K, and the dress of each.  The K was obvious, most bearing shield and sword, and some plumed helms – they were Knights.  The M and the C were more perplexing, they looked royal, like a King, and Queen, but each was the other if the card was reversed.  Monarch, Kiannae decided, and Consort.

On each card that had no number on its corner stood a different object.  The hearts held a Tower, the Stars a Sun, and the Flames a Sword atop a Shield.  The remaining cards of each type had arrangements of the chief symbol, that matched the number on the card.  There were ten of each, one for the object, six arrays, and the three face cards.  They were well worn along the edges, soft with use and time, but overall seemed in good condition.

Kiannae was not certain, but had a guess of the purpose of the cards.  ‘Playing Fates,’ she’d heard the term, and had guessed that it involved cards.  It was a form of gambling, frowned upon by some, loved by others.  Another stack of cards sat beside where the first had been.  She returned the playing cards, and picked up the others.

These were quite different, and a little longer than the first.  No symbols on the corners, no sets that were instantly recognizable, the backs a plain brown.  Each had a name along the bottom, and upside down along the top, but some were hard to read, some seemed spelled wrong, or to use odd letters.  There was a semblance of groupings, people, things, and others.  They seemed painted, and there was a faint enchantment on them, protective certainly, but each seemed vaguely different.  There were quite a few more of them, she counted in the back of her head as she examined them.

There were forty-nine.  She sorted them into obvious groups.  People who seemed kings, queens, mages, knights, and one quite contrary, who stood at a crossroads, not upon the road, but upside down beneath the sign.  There were things of the night sky, though many of these also held the faces of people, still they seemed to go together.  There were animals, common folk, and elemental forces.  There were objects made by people, a sword, a shield, a tower, a wheel, others, and there were quite a few she couldn’t place.

Kiannae pondered one of the celestial cards at length.  It was a simple unassuming thing, but it’s label could be more clearly read than most, ‘The North Star.’  This struck Kianne oddly.  There was a South Star, it made sense for there to be a north one as well, yet in Laurel’s astronomy lessons he had not mentioned it that she could recall.  Stranger still there was no south star in the deck.  She set it aside with its like, and pondered other mysteries.

Some of the cards bore two faces like the first deck.  A king, and a queen most notably, yet unlike the playing cards the opposite bust was different in pose, and tone, but not gender.  The king bore a scepter on one side, and a thorned rose on the other, his robe open, with a knowing smile.  The queen wore a crown, and a regal air at one end, and the other her chest was bare.  At one end she held a cup, a dagger at the other.

She shuffled things around for a bit, it seemed seven was the operative number, so surely seven sets of seven.  There were a few that could go into one set or another.  One perplexing card showed a river, which divided seven times, and then each of those streams divided seven more.  The seven rivers it was labeled.  Another was a solitary coin.  She pondered these, and of each set that perplexed her, she found that one might be pulled out, and placed between.  One coin, a two forked road, three women – labeled The Fates – a sprout with four leaves, five men, a crown with six stars, and lastly the seven rivers.

Everything seemed in order, as though they belonged together.  What these cards were she was uncertain.  The other stack, less than half the number was used for playing a game, a game of chance which alluded to fate.  She frowned.  Divination, prophecy, these were all things Laurel would not touch upon.  They were rubbish at best, and dangerous at worst, and something of them spoke to that end.

Kiannae considered why Mercu kept them – he was no fan of such matters either.  They did seem lovely to look upon though, finely crafted.  Perhaps he kept them for that reason.  The gambling cards were no guess she thought, not as exquisite, but well made, and he would play a game like that most assuredly.  She gathered the groups of cards up, but one slipped away from the lot.  It showed a child, and as she moved to place it on top the stack, the storm that raged there caught her eye as she set the child onto it.

The child at the eye of the storm.  The words returned to her, she frowned, and pushed it willfully from her mind, flipping the deck over, and returning it to it’s place on the desk.

Try as she might, one last thing held her eye.  A large scrap of paper, clearly a note.  More snooping than she was already guilty of, and yet she could not resist.  She picked it up, and eyed the words dubiously:

I’ve seen such love in the eyes of the child foretold,
to bend even the unshakable wills of fates of old,
she who rides the storm was meant to walk alone,
cruel fate by kind follies lays yet half atoned,
crooked is the path that leads to salvation,
when all else is bound ever to be forsaken,
a fool’s errand holds the only wisest course,
and the wisdom of elders shall bring remorse,
yet at last it comes err to a final hopeful pass,
though blood will spill from lips before the last,
an unlikely pair shall over many stars preside,
till shadowed days long past the end of time.

She put the note back unhappily, and finally understood.  It had not escaped her – much as Laurel, and Mercu had tried – that the cat Mar, had belonged to Cassandra.  The rest it seemed did as well.  She stepped away from the desk, and tried to forget the lot.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“What’s the North Star?” Kiannae asked of her sister as they sat alone in their room.  She had tried to let the whole thing go, but that bit was particularly odd to her, and seemed in itself harmless.

Katrisha looked bewildered a moment.  “Do you pay any attention to our astronomy lessons?” She final asked in lieu of an answer.

“Yes,” Kiannae growled defensively.

“Then you should know,” Katrisha sighed.

“Just tell me,” Kiannae grumbled.

“It’s the brightest star in the sky, though we will likely never see it.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Kiannae protested.

“You really haven’t been paying attention,” Katrisha laughed.

“Must you?” Kiannae winced.

“After your chiding me for failing Moriel’s spelling test…yes.”

“I still don’t see why, you read as well as me.”

“Better,” Katrisha countered, “according to Moriel.”

“Which makes even less sense, you read half as much as me.”

“Perhaps you are trying too hard,” Katrisha offered.

“Can you just tell me what the North Star is,” Kiannae snapped.

Katrisha closed her book, folded her arms over it, and stared at her sister a moment.  “Very well,” she said, and with a flick of her wrist an orb appeared before her.  “Let’s say this is Thaea,” she continued.  “You do remember the South Star, yes?”

“Yes,” Kiannae rolled her eyes.

“Just checking,” Katrisha laughed.  “The South Star appears steady in the sky, because it is here.”  She placed a bright point of light below the sphere.  “It is called a pole star, because it is roughly above the pole.”  She drew a line from the bottom of the sphere.  “The North Star is its opposite,” she drew a line from the top of Thaea.  “It is roughly above the north pole,” she placed another bright point of light.

“And you said it’s the brightest star?”

“Except for the sun of course.”

“Of course,” Kiannae responded irritably.  “And we won’t see it because Thaea is in the way.”

“Exactly.”

“Why would anyone care about it though?” Kiannae frowned.  “A star no one will ever see.”

“Other than Laurel, and now you, I’ve only ever heard one person mention it before.”  Katrisha pursed her lips.  “It was one of the soldiers, said he was looking for his ‘north star.’”

“Odd.”

“Very,” Katrisha greed.  “I asked Mercu about it, he said it is a very old saying.”

“How old?”

“‘Ancient beyond reason,’ I believe were his exact words.”  There was a long pause, and Kiannae nearly returned to her reading, when Katrisha pressed the point.  “Why the interest in the North Star?”

“It was a painted card on Mercu’s desk,” Kiannae said, not mentioning the rest.

“Curious,” Katrisha said.

“I thought so,” Kiannae agreed.

“The south star is used for guidance, to know east from west, north from south.  Though I believe Mercu said tradition holds to turn your back on the south star, and face north.  That the coming day is on your right hand, and the passing night on your left.”

“That’s how most maps are drawn,” Kiannae considered.

“It would seem easier to face them the other way, wouldn’t it,” Katrisha noted with some humor.  “I asked Mercu about that too.  How did he put it…”  She seemed thoughtful.  “Traditions are like dragons, immortal, full of teeth, and best not questioned.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 12th, 644 E.R.

“Another attack, brutal as the last,” the King growled.

“Worse technically,” Arlen noted.  “No survivors at all, not even any of our men guarding it.”

“I would wager far less was taken, than burned with the wagons,” Laurel said.  “This remains clearly an act meant to terrorize caravans back away from the east road, rather than any effective form of robbery.  Now, after only two have finally passed that way again, after all these years.  It will be prove more effective than the last.”

“And all hope for an eastern pass is lost to us,” the King rested his head in his hand.  “After South Rook there will be no political will to undertake the task, even if it were doable.  Which it is, but only at wild costs we could never afford.”

“Such is the way of disrupting succession so,” Arlen said in a measured tone, that hid nothing of his real opinion.

“Do not tempt Us, to disrupt it further,” the King said coldly.

“I merely state the facts,” Arlen said with thin, practiced calm.

“Do not begrudge a man some displeasure for the fall of his friends,” Laurel offered diplomatically.  “They did fall very far, conspiring to reward those responsible for the deaths of innocents, and prosecute more innocents in their place.  Surely, such was a singular aberration of two men more corrupt than truly pious.  Whoever he once knew them as.”

“Surely,” Arlen agreed uneasily, he didn’t seem to like the opinion implied, but did so anyway.  “The costs are none the less evident.  It will take years, if not decades to mend the damage done.”

“There is hope in good Maraline,” the King noted.  “Lukus takes well to her comforts still, and though I was ready to let him return to South Rook, to ease these tensions, he of his own accord petitioned to stay another month.  Should they wed one day, and Parin step aside for the boy who remains the rightful heir, it will go a long way.”

“It would,” Arlen agreed though he hardly seemed overly pleased with that thought either.

“The damage is done,” the King said.  “On all counts.  Have a light scouting team probe the forest carefully.  No big show of force this time to rouse the Sylvans.  Should they go missing, or find anything to report then we can act, yet it seems reasonable to suspect these ‘bandits’ will have vanished again.”

“Unless they are waiting to insure another caravan does not brave it,” Laurel noted.

“All the more reason to be quick in scouting, in the implausible event we should be so lucky,” Arlen agreed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 20th, 644 E.R.

Eran looked uneasy.  At least that was Katrisha’s best guess at precisely what the man was feeling.  “Do you know when Laurel will be back?” he asked after a moment of considering the young woman that had answered his knock at the study door.

“Soon, I would think,” Katrisha answered.  “He went to get us both food from the kitchen.  He would have sent me, but left muttering something about wanting to actually have some of the food arrive at the study.”

Eran superseded a laugh, and looked about.  “Where is your sister?” he asked in lieu of anything else to fill the silence.

“Reading somewhere along the wall I expect,” Katrisha shrugged.  “She said she felt like some sun.”

More silence followed.

“You can come in and sit if you like,” Katrisha finally offered.

Eran considered Katrisha, the room, and after a moment of hesitation nodded, and entered.  Katrisha closed the door behind him.  Eran glanced about curiously for a moment, before Katrisha gestured to a chair beneath one of the bookcases that lined the round lower tier of the study.  Eran nodded again, and took a seat, but did not lose the curious flitting looks about the room.

“Have you never been in the tower?” Katrisha asked after a bit.

“No,” Eran answered, “can’t say as I have.”

“What did you need to speak to Laurel about?” Katrisha enquired curiously.

“I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for me to say.”  Eran frowned, but continued to look a bit nervous.

“I am an apprentice of the Court Mage, am I not?” Katrisha pressed.

“So you are,” Eran consented, “but while you may be privileged enough to hear what I have to say, I am not sure it is fit for your ears.”

“I’m not a child,” Katrisha protested.

“Aren’t you?” Eran raised an eyebrow.

“I am eleven,” Katrisha stated firmly.  “I am a young lady now, Mercu says so.”

“And what I have to speak with Laurel about is not fit for the ears of ladies, I assure you,” Eran countered.

“Rubbish,” Katrisha sneered.  “I’ll not be treated like some delicate flower.”

Eran smiled.  “Yes, you are more like the women I knew before I came to the castle.”  Katrisha looked perplexed for a moment, and Eran amused, if in a sad sort of way.  “No, no you are quite right.  Do you wish to hear my report?”

“Yes,” Katrisha said flatly, and crossed her arms.

“I have returned from the north,” Eran began.  “Scouting for bandits – our last expedition some years ago found them to have fled after a bloody, and impressive fight with the Sylvans, and then nothing till recently, but I assume you have heard about the most recent attack?”

“Yes.  Just when caravans had started to take the eastern road again in earnest.  Terrible news, killed everyone again.  I was so relieved to hear it wasn’t Mercu’s sister.”  Katrisha looked a bit ill thinking about it.

“Rather than send a full expedition it was scouts only this time – moving light, avoiding rousing the Sylvans, or hopefully getting ambushed ourselves.  Track and report only.”

“I presume you found something?” Katrisha pressed.

“Yes, I found the bandits,” Eran nodded, “or I can only presume what was left of them.”

“Did some form of justice meet them again before the Kings?” Katrisha asked hopefully – she had been worried that Laurel would have to go again.  Particularly when she had snuck a peek at the report, and seen that the caravan had been destroyed in spite of two mages in their employ.

“Perhaps,” Eran narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.  “I was the deepest scout – the others were not willing to go in that far, not after last time.  I found the ruins of a camp.  Most would chalk it up to the bandit’s luck having run out again.”

“Not you?” Katrisha asked.

“I can not say I know much of Sylvan tactics, or gifted abilities,” Eran prefaced hesitantly, “but what I saw, gruesome as it was, did not look like an attack from the outside.  Not like last time.”

“What did it look like?”  Katrisha crossed her arms again, so far unimpressed, but very curious.

“Like a monster was dropped in their midst,” Eran shrugged, but he clearly was holding something back.

“What kind of monster?” Katrisha pressed.

“Are you sure you wish to hear the details?” Eran countered.

“Yes,” Katrisha assured him.

“Very well,” Eran said, and leaned back.  “The kind of monster that only a mage can be.”  He paused for effect, and seemed almost amused at Katrisha’s cross expression.  “With the exception of some bodies flung against trees, or farther out into the woods – which had been heavily eaten by scavengers – most were circled around the shredded ruins of a tent.”  He paused, it seemed less for effect, than to steal him self.  “Those that weren’t eaten by animals appeared to have been burned alive.  Based on their contorted possess, and stricken expressions.  I don’t think it was a quick death.”

“And you don’t think it was the Sylvans because the bodies were centered around the camp?” Katrisha asked, holding her composure at the gruesome thought.

“Yes,” Eran nodded.  “They didn’t look like they were fighting a force on the outside, but something from within.  Clearly a mage, or some other gift, but I’d say it would have to be a mage.  We’ve long suspected from the caravan wreckage from both attacks, the wards, the damage at the campsite previous, that there is a mage in the bandit’s midst.  Now I would say either they turned on the mage, or the mage turned on them.  Why we can’t guess, but the results are the same.”

“So the bandits are dead then?” Katrisha asked.  “The east road is safe?”

“Perhaps – for now,” Eran shook his head.  “There was no evidence of the mage himself amongst the bodies.  Whoever killed his compatriots likely still lives, and it looked like someone was dragged out of the camp to the north west.  The Sylvans are watching that camp site, a warning shot from them drove me off before I could search for any firm evidence.  There is no telling what the mage might do in future, but the numbers of his force are seemingly dwindled.  That’s two lost camps now, maybe he will give up.”

“You think the mage was the leader?”

“Would you expect otherwise?”

“No.”

“I’ll press you not repeat this, though it’s reached my ears so it can be no great secret.  There are rumors, and speculations to say the mage leading these attacks is a character known as The Wolf.  A Duke of Osyrae, and as nasty a piece of work as I’ve ever heard of.”

“And you believe these rumors?”

“Burning traitors, or failures alive would seem in keeping with what I have heard of the man in question. Still, these games, playing in the shadows like this does not fit.  He was the favored younger son of the mad king after all, a proud man obsessed with honor.  Regardless, I don’t foresee caravans returning to the eastern road again, not for many years.  They will all do the smart thing, and wait for someone else to take the chance first.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 13

Upon the rock we stand,
above the sheltered bay,
watch over passing ships,
come with war or trade,

none shall carry us away,
ever we stand our own,
ne’er harm from the sea,
come to Avrale our home.

– The Watches of Wesrook, circa 40 B.E.

The Tower of Wesrook

Entering the courtyard of the Castle of Wesrook was not entirely unlike entering the lower court at Broken Hill.  Though as there was no upper court above, the keep doors stood prominently at one end, and the main tower loomed above, and drew one’s eyes up.  It was in fact slightly taller than the western spire at Broken Hill, slightly wider, but gave the illusion of being much more so.

The castle was situated just north of the rocky breakwater that formed Wesrook bay.  Even over the clamor of the city behind them, still murmuring into the evening, one could hear the crash of waves beneath the cliffs.  Four children piled out of the coach, followed by Mercu, and Laurel, as Horence dropped from the front, and patted, and rubbed the horse reassuringly.

A well dressed older gentleman walked up to greet the company, bowed to Charles, and nodded to Mercu curiously.  “Young Lord, and good sir,” he addressed Charles, and Mercu.  “Welcome to Wesrook – our Lady shall be along shortly, but the Duke Regent is indisposed for company this evening.”

“Chamberlain Faren,” Charles said in a manner that almost seemed pleased.

The twins were still on the far side of the coach with Laurel, and when Faren looked to Wren, with his long hair, he came to the wrong conclusion.  “Ah, is this one of the twins we’ve all heard of?”

Charles looked at Wren, and then laughed.  “That’s their brother,” he said just as the other’s rounded the coach.  “Though I can understand the confusion, he does rather look like a girl, doesn’t he.  Probably his upbringing.”

“Ah,” Faren said a bit embarrassed, “my apologies young sir.”  Wren nodded to Faren, but gave Charles a bit of an unkind look, as Laurel and the twins emerged from behind the coach.  “Court Mage Grey,” Faren said with a bow, “and these then, must be your twin apprentices.  We were not informed their brother would be joining them.”

“A last minute addition to our company, my apologies if it cause any trouble Faren,” Laurel nodded.

“No,” Faren said, “there is plenty of room in the tower, and the Lady does adore children.”

“That I do,” said a woman approaching from the direction of the keep.  She was tall, and elegant with flowing blond hair that wafted about as she walked.  She carried herself with a grace, and purpose, that contradicted the readiness with which she knelt down, and hugged Charles as she reached him.

“Hello mother,” Charles muttered with a clear air of embarrassment, but returned the embrace nonetheless.  She kissed her son on the forehead, and then stood up, taking stalk of the new arrivals.

“Laurel, Mercu, so good to see you,” the Lady said with a nod.

“Likewise Lady Meloria,” Mercu said with one of his more exaggerated bows.

“The twins are growing up quite nicely I see,” Meloria said with a smile, “They put on quite the show last I saw them.”  Katrisha, and Kiannae each shot each other a confused look.  “We were not properly introduced, so I am not surprised you do not recognize me,” Meloria added with a smile.

“You do look familiar,” Kiannae said.

“I believe I saw you dancing with Prince Darion,” Katrisha added.

“Ah, very good,” Meloria said.  “Yes, Darion was so sweet to offer to dance with me when my husband left early for the evening.”

“I’d have done the service myself,” Mercu said apologetically, “alas I was otherwise occupied.”

“Yes, with these two lasses here.”  Meloria laughed.  “The show was quite worth it, I assure you.”

A little golden haired girl about two years younger than the twins bounded across the courtyard, and all but pounced onto Charles.  “Charlie!” the girl squealed.

“Hello, Millarae,” Charles acknowledged with further embarasment, and hugged her.

“Your sister has been ever so anxious for your arrival,” Meloria commented.  “Then of course she took forever getting ready.  You should however call your brother by his proper name,” she admonished the girl lightly.

“Sorry Charles,” Millarae said sweetly.

Horence handed the reins of the horse over to the stable attendant, and came around to where the group was standing.  “My Lady,” he said with a bow.

“Horence, good Sir!” Meloria proclaimed, to Horence’s obvious surprise.  “How is your dear Alice?  Any children on the way?”  Horence looked more than a little uncomfortable.  “Have I been too forward?” Meloria asked apologetically.

“No,” Horence said.  “It is not something we had chosen to share yet.”

“Ah,” Meloria remarked thoughtfully.  “My apologies.  Come,” Meloria said gesturing towards the keep, “dinner will be served shortly.”

Katrisha tugged at Horence’s coat hem as the group walked towards the keep.  “Alice is having a baby?” she asked when Horence acknowledged her.

“Yes,” Horence answered simply trying to smile at the inquisitive little girl.

“Why haven’t you two told anyone?” Kiannae chimed in.

“Leave Horence alone you two,” Laurel scolded lightly, as he could see the poor man was a bit put out by the questions, and he suspected why.

“It’s alright,” Horence said somberly.  “It’s cause the first didn’t take, and we wanted to give this one time, to be sure.”  Horence said in a matter of fact tone, but his face betrayed his even demeanor.

“Why…” Katrisha started to ask, but stopped as Mercu gave her a stern look, which actually carried more weight than any scolding from Laurel, as it came so rarely.  Mercu patted Horence on the back consolingly, and they all walked into the keep.

Within the doors things were quite different from Broken Hill.  Rather than a corridor, with a throne room past it, a round room greeted the visitors upon entry.  It was not entirely unlike the throne room, as a balcony overlooked the lower floor, but there was no throne, and only a few benches were set against the wall, between stands holding vases, and other decorations.

At the far end of the foyer stairs followed the curve of the wall up to the balcony, and this was the way Meloria lead her guests.  “I hope you do not mind that we will be dining upstairs,” Meloria commented.  “I much prefer the rear dining hall for smaller affairs, it’s more intimate, and has a view out over the water.  You’ve arrived just in time for the last of sunset.”

“That’s fine,” Laurel said, “our apologies for the late arrival, it’s a long way from Aldermor, but we thought it better to try in a day rather than stop along the way.”

“Yes, it’s a tricky choice that,” Meloria acknowledged.  “I swear every other time I make the trip I change my mind on it, and neither way quite feels right.”

“One of these days they will have to invent a better horse,” Mercu suggested jokingly.

“They’ve already done that,” Laurel noted.  “Not many have bothered with the expense though.  So few people have the knack for shaper magic any more – though I have heard there may be a wild dire herd in Lycia that has promise for a sustainable breed.”

“I’ll have to have my steward look into that,” Meloria commented.  “My husband will give me some hassle on the expense I am sure, but to be able to more regularly visit my son would be worth bargaining with him over.”

Katrisha eyed the way young Millarae hung on her brother’s arm, and wondered if maybe Charles wasn’t as bad as she often thought him to be, if the little girl adored him so.  The girl looked up at her curiously, and Katrisha smiled back.

At the top of the stairs the party turned right down a well adorned corridor, and promptly arrived at double doors that opened on a small dining hall, big enough to seat about twelve.  The room was bathed in deep orange light from the setting sun that licked the distant hills of Carth, and flashed off the waves crossing the vast expanse of water below.

Though this sight held everyone’s attention for a moment, but it was impossible to ignore for long a well dressed man with pitch black skin who sat at the right end of the table.  At a glance one not familiar with his countrymen could be forgiven for mistaking him for the man from the city square.  Such however was clearly impossible, as that man could not have arrived before the coach that had passed him.  Further, upon closer examination he clearly had a much squarer jaw, and then all else could nearly be forgotten for a glimmer of his violet eyes.

“Might I introduce his Lordship Varmun Iverhn,” Meloria said addressing the new arrivals.  “He’s something of a remarkable man.  Born a royal to a tribe of the deep Northern Wastes, he has become a man of the sea, a trader, a diplomat, and even a musician.”  The man stood, and bowed.  “These,” Meloria continued in turn, “are Court Mage Grey, Sir Horence, Mercu, the young Ladies Ashton, their brother, and of course my son Charles.”

“A pleasure,” Varmun said in an almost frighteningly deep resonant voice with a thick unfamiliar accent.  “The Lady speaks far too kindly of me.”

“On the contrary,” Meloria protested, and guided her guests toward seats. “I dare say your story is more remarkable than I have let on.”  The three siblings were seated on the near side of the table, with Kiannae nearest the curious foreigner, Katrisha beside her, then Wren, and Mercu.  Laurel was offered the seat at the left end, and Meloria took a seat between her children with their backs to the view, leaving two seats open for Horence who sat at the far right of the table next to the stranger.

“Do please, tell your story again,” Meloria said insistently.

“It’s not so much,” the man said in his thick voice.  “I did only what many men so placed might have.”

“If many men of your land are so bold, or talented as you,” Meloria refuted, “I do not think you would be seeking allies so.  Osyrae would not stand a chance.”

Varmun laughed lightly, though even this was a bit of a low rumble.  “There are many quite bold in my land,” he replied, “but those of Osyrae are cold, cruel, and just as bold.”

“So they are,” Meloria nodded, “though not all of course.”

“No, not all of course,” Varmun admitted.  “Those who I am unfortunately most acquainted, have harassed, and enslaved my kind since before living memory.  Even the eldest shamans say it was so before their fathers, fathers, fathers.”

“You still have shamans in the north?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Oh yes, many,” Varmun nodded.  “I think there are more shamans left than free common men in the north.  Osyrae has enslaved all who can not fend for themselves.  The shamans have lead the free together, and ever farther north, to the deepest oasis.  I myself have the blood, as a chieftain’s son.”

“Does that make you a prince?” Katrisha asked.

“Much less I think,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “my father is Second Chief of the combined tribes, and I his fourth child, and third son, by his second wife.”

“Second wife?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“You have not yet heard of our First Chief,” Varmun said with a flash of white teeth between his deep burgundy lips.  “She has three husbands, and is the most powerful of all the shamans, she is.”

“How a woman could ever bare even two husbands I’ll never imagine,” Meloria laughed lightly, drawing a chuckle from Mercu.

“I was not so important by my birth,” Varmun continued, “not the most gifted of my father’s children, or even the strongest.”

“Yet the most clever,” Meloria offered.

“Hmm, yes,” Varmun nodded, “or so my mother would tell me.  Perhaps she is right, I can not say.  I did find I had more a way for the mage’s tricks, which did not earn me much more love.”

“I can not imagine why, your magic is spectacular,” Meloria protested.

“I have been told it is a gift all my own,” Varmun admitted, “but illusions are not much use – not compared to my eldest brother who’s strong as a wild dune walker, or my sister whose voice can bring any man, or woman to their knees, and call the wind to dance.”

“What’s a dune walker?” Katirsha asked.

“Perhaps I should show you,” Varmun hummed, and closed his eyes.  A swirl of dancing light formed to his right, and traced out the contours of a great horned head, and ears which hung as large sheets that flapped back, and forth occasionally.  The light traced back along a stout neck, to thick shoulders, and down legs at their narrowest point as hefty as a grown man’s chest.  A low slung belly, and high humped back formed last, and vanished back through the wall.

“They are noble, but fierce beasts of burden.”  Varmun smiled, and looked over the awestruck party.  Horence could be seen to lean slightly away as the apparition shifted its stance in his direction.  It started to unravel, and began to reform into a tall, broad shouldered man whose chest was indeed wider than the former illusions legs.  “This of course is my eldest brother, do you see the resemblance?”  He laughed leadingly.

The second form came apart in a swirl of birds that swooped around Varmun, and formed another luminous image to his left, that took on the face of a slender woman, with short densely curled hair.  “My sister,” Varmun said, and the woman bowed, before dancing across the room, and vanishing through a wall.

“That is a very impressive technique,” Laurel said shrewdly.  “I must say, I’ve only once seen the like.  A mage who fancied himself an entertainer.  His illusions were almost as elegant, but much smaller.  That swarm of birds would have been past his limit.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “You see, I am nothing special, even my gift is not unique.”

“Yet what you have done,” Meloria protested.  “Taking your small share of wealth, and turning it into a trading empire, all to travel far, and wide in search of allies for your people.”

“Wealth I have found,” Varmun nodded.  “A good life even, but allies, less so,” Varmun said sadly.

“I fear the Duke Regent, and myself each lack any authority on the matter,” Meloria said looking to Laurel.

“I can not say I agree with the Council on this,” Laurel offered carefully.  “Yet the treaty does not cover the lands north of Osyrae, and I fear they have lost the will to act, even if it did.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “So I have been told.  They will march south again you know, it is their way.”

“I know,” Laurel answered, “it seems inevitable.  Their great interest in your lands is resources, the deep desert mines are filled with rare, and precious stones.  Not the least of which is Amberite.  If they intend war, they will want as much of that as they can have.”

“Indeed,” Varmun agreed.  “We are nothing more than a practice war for them, in preparation for their real goals.  For the moment at least they remain unwilling to commit to more, so your Council, and your Kings ignore them.”

“We do not ignore,” Laurel said solemnly, “but we cannot act.  At best we start a war without support, at worst we find ourselves between Osyrae and the Council.”

Varmun looked sadly out to the darkening sky.  “As I say, I am not so much.  I try, and try, but this is always the answer.”

“What will you do?” Katrisha asked.

“As I have,” Varmun said looking to the little girl.  “I shall continue my travels, head south to other lands again.  Seek audience with the White One.”

“I wish you luck,” Laurel said hesitantly.

“I know I have little chance of gaining such favor,” Varmun said sternly.  “Yet as you say, if the Council will not aid us, only the former Empress sits beyond their authority.”

“There is little hope of her involving herself, unless the Black Flight joins Osyrae’s campaign.”  Laurel grimaced at his own framing.

“So it is, but what other choice do I have?” Varmun shrugged.

“None I fear,” Laurel admitted.  “It is no more a fool’s errand than to head east to Mordove, and there is the frightful possibility that Vharen will somehow drag the Black Flight to his side.  That I could only hope would move her…”

“A terrible thing to hang hopes upon,” Varmun said with displeasure.

“Yes,” Laurel said with a nod.  “It seemed he thought his conquest of a lesser dragon would win them over.  If anything, I personally expected the capital to be burned to the ground for the slight.”

“I have heard of this madness,” Varmun said narrowing his eyes.  “It is true then?”

“Yes,” Laurel said.  “Though nothing has happened so far, either way.  It is almost like the whole thing never happened – though reports say he has less humor than ever.  I consider that a good sign, such as they come.  That he won no favors for his theatrics.”

“Enough of such trying matters,” Meloria interjected as food began to arrive.

“Quite right,” Varmun agreed, seeming more cordial than genuine, there was still a sternness to his air.  “I am delighted to see what new your chef has created.”

“Of all the accomplishments Meloria listed,” Mercu remarked, “I fear we heard nothing of your music.”

Varmun’s posture softened, and he let out a long breath.  “Yes.  Though I was of music long before I became a man of the world.  I fear I left my instruments in my room.”

“You play more than one then?” Mercu asked.

“Three,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “more or less.  There is a flute like instrument native to my people, I learned to play when I was a boy.  The captain I hired for the first ship I bought played a violin, and taught me in the time he was in my employ.”

“And the third?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Well, that I do carry with me,” Varmun laughed.  With a wave of his hand strings of light formed before him of varied lengths, he plucked several experimentally.  There was a barely audible ring with each, halfway between a plucked cord, and a rung bell.  He ran his fingers along several of the strings, and then without further hesitation began to play a haunting melody, as food was placed at the table.

“Is it not spectacular?” Meloria asked pointedly.

“Quite,” Mercu remarked.

“It’s very clever,” Laurel nodded.  “Strung spell filaments tuned to musical chords, and solidified enough to interact with the air.  Much more portable than even the lightest instrument.”

“I think it’s lovely,” Kiannae said leaning against the table, and listening intently.

“It sounds like the lights,” Wren said with a furrowed brow.

“The lights?” Laurel asked curiously.

“The ones from the woods,” Wren said staring at the strings.

“I think he may mean wisps,” Mercu said incredulously.

“Wisps don’t…” Laurel started before Mercu interrupted.

“I know.”  Mercu sighed.  “Renae might have mentioned something about seeing wisps around him.  Though that was several years ago.”

“That is also something Wisps do not do,” Laurel shook his head.

The music stopped, and Varmun seemed to be considering the boy who was staring at him intently.  “Wisps,” he said thoughtfully.  “There are lights in the desert, as well as your forests.  There was a girl who’s mother died in childbirth, she was touched all her days, and would be seen to walk into the night, and the lights would come to her.”

Wren looked away.  “I see,” Varmun nodded, “my apologies.”

“A terrible business that,” Meloria nodded.

Katrisha pulled her brother closer.  “It’s ok,” she said softly.

“Let us eat,” Merloria suggested.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 7th, 644 E.R.

Katrisha lay staring out into the night – she had been for some time.  It was well after midnight, and she could not sleep.  She rolled over gently, and looked at her twin in the moonlight.  Kiannae was fast asleep, her face half buried in a pillow.  Katrisha closed her eyes, and listened to the rhythm of waves breaking far beneath the tower as she had for hours.  A faint melodic sound could be heard somewhere far away.  Completely frustrated, she slipped out of bed carefully, so as not to wake her sister.

Katrisha’s robe hung in a wardrobe by the door.  She put it on, gently opened, and then closed the chamber door behind her.  The hallway was very dark, and with a wave of her hand a bright blue orb illuminated her surroundings.  The distant sound of music could still be heard, and she strained to tell which direction it was from.  Deciding it was right she headed that way, and down a flight of stairs to a lower level of the tower.  As she passed westward windows out over the ocean she could hear the music more clearly above the rumble of crashing waves.

Down another flight of stairs Katrisha came to double doors, one of which stood half open onto a large moonlit balcony.  She waved away her light, and peaked through the open door.  There in the moonlight stood Varmun, leaned against the railing casually, staring up into the sky.  He strummed at his conjured harp, which scintillated with ethereal light.  It took a moment for Katrisha to notice he was not alone on the balcony.  Wren was lain against a wall, seemingly asleep.

“Come in,” Varmun said in his deep resonant voice.  “Or out, as it were.”

Katrisha had a start that she had been discovered, and sheepishly stepped out onto the balcony.  “Your brother came not so long ago,” Varmun nodded towards the sleeping boy.  “It seems none of us three could sleep, though it seems I have helped him in that regard.”

“I am sorry to intrude,” Katirsha said with a bow.

“Do not be,” Varmun said, and continued playing.  “This is a public place after all.”

“Why couldn’t you sleep?” Katrisha asked, but then thought perhaps the question was impertinent.

“Why couldn’t you?” Varmun asked in turn.

“I often can’t,” Katrisha admitted, “but I asked first,” she pressed childishly.

“We are much the same in this,” Varmun replied.  “I have always been a night walker.  This was how I knew the girl who called the lights.”

“I’ve heard of wisps before,” Katrisha said thoughtfully, “but never seen one.”

“Most only see them from afar,” Varmun hummed.  “It was only because of Eshai that I have seen one more closely,” there was a strange wistfulness to his voice as he spoke the girl’s name.

“Were you and Eshai close?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps,” Varmun said with an odd wobble of his head.  “She did not speak much, but when she did…”  He hummed deeply.  “She was a beautiful girl,” he sighed.  “Even those who scorned her could not deny this.  A delicate desert flower.  I loved her of course, I was a fool in many ways for this.”

“Why?” Katrisha asked walking closer to the large man whose face was almost a void against the twinkling stars.

“Why did I love her, or why was I a fool?”  Varmun laughed.

“A fool of course.”  Katrisha laughed more awkwardly.

“It is not polite to speak the reason,” Varmun frowned.  “I shall say only she was for no man.  Yet this, he said strumming the luminous strings before him.  One of many tricks I learned from an exiled foreigner, who lived amongst us.  It won me her friendship, if not more.”

Katrisha was curious what he had avoided, but held her tongue on the point.  She asked something else instead.  “Did she hear something else in the music, like Wren seems to?”

Varmun nodded.  “She said the lights whispered secrets, and sometimes those secrets were like a song.”  He ran his fingers along the strings, rather than plucking them.  The sound they made was hard to hear, distant and wavering.  “She said it was like this, but as though words – if not all she could understand.”

“What kind of secrets did they tell her?” Katrisha asked rapt.

“Warnings, portents, true names, and forgotten deeds,” Varmun shrugged.  “The things of seers, but also things they do not see.”

Katrisha frowned.  “I’ve been told not to listen to prophecy.  It’s unreliable.”

“Yes, it is,” Varmun nodded.  “Or so I am told.  To glimpse the future is not to see what will be, but a shifting thread in motion.  Most often you see only where it is, and not quite where it will land.  There is solace in this, that the future is not set in stone.”

“Where is Eshai now?” Katrisha asked leaning against the rail next to Varmun, and peaked over it at the distant shimmering waves below.

“Still home, and safe I hope,” Varmun replied.  “My sister guards her, and none refuse my sister – not father, not the shamans, or even the First Chieftain.  I have seen her voice bring great warriors to their knees.”

“How?” Katrisha asked.

Varmun shrugged.  “Your mages do not know everything, nor our shamans.  There are secrets still in the world, old, potent, and subtle too.  Eshai told me this, and I believe her – I believe also it is she that taught my sister this gift.  For I heard it first from her, to call wisps, wind, a tone command that could move the world, and tremble the land.  She even once called the Lady of the Sands herself.”

Katrisha’s eyes lit up.  “I’ve heard of her, she’s real?”

“Oh yes,” Varmun nodded.  “She comes like snakes whipping across the dune, and then rises ageless, beautiful, and naked as the day we are born.  No shame, and profound pride.  She gave a kiss to each of us three that night, and only I could not hold her gaze.  She made us a castle from the desert sands that stood for two days before it returned to dust.”

“How strange,” Katrisha said.

“Hmm, yes, the castle made the tribe whisper many things,” Varmun agreed.  “The kisses…” he shook his head, thinking better of his musings.

“What of them?” Katrisha pressed curiously.

“They showed me where ever my heart lay, it would have to lay elsewhere,” he answered, and resumed his playing thin lipped, and wove a mournful happy tune.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae stirred, and pulled her blankets more tightly around her.  As her eyes opened she was struck by the empty bed beside her.  It was not like Katrisha to wake before her, and most mornings, at least cool mornings such as it was, Kiannae would find her sister curled up to her.  She sat up groggily, looked around the room, and saw that Katrisha wasn’t in the room at all.

Kiannae walked over to the wardrobe, which had been left partly open.  She Pulled out her own robe, and slipped it on, before opening the door.  No one was around, though she thought she heard voices somewhere.  Taking a guess she walked towards the stairs, and down to a lower level of the tower where she found Laurel engrossed in conversation with Varmun.

“Will you truly not petition the Council on our behalf?” Varmun said a bit irritably.

“You misunderstand me,” Laurel said wincing in frustration.  “I will tell the Council all that you have told me.  Yet I am certain they have heard it all before – even from me they already have third hand reports that Osyrae had turned aggressive towards the north.”

Varmun looked like he wanted to protest further, but did not.

“Where’s Katrisha?” Kianane asked.

Laurel simply shrugged.  Varmun however looked to the little girl, and smiled.  “I believe your twin is in young Wren’s room.”

“Thank you,” Kiannae said, and turned towards the chamber doors.  She found however she wasn’t sure which room was Wren’s.  Mercu emerged from one, and Kiannae walked up to him.  “Which room is Wren’s?” she asked.

Mercu pointed to the room opposite his own, and rubbed his neck.  “Thank you,” Kiannae said again, walked across, and opened the door without knocking.  Katrisha, and Wren were both asleep, curled up together.

Kiannae had a twinge of jealousy.  Katrisha was her twin after all, and though some mornings extracting herself from her sister’s sleepy embrace was a bit of frustrating effort, it always felt nice to wake up to being held.  Kianane was also more than a little perplexed how they had wound up that way.

Kiannae walked over, nudged Katrisha who stirred only slightly.  This however woke Wren who was momentarily startled, and sat up with a start, which threw Katrisha’s arm off him, and rolled her onto her back.  This at least partially woke her.

Katrisha made an unintelligible murmur, and blinked up at her twin.  There was nothing particularly new about this to her at first, as Kiannae was often awake before her, and would wake her up.  She slowly realized that not only Kiannae was dressed, but she was as well.  Slowly she remembered having been too tired when Varmun had carried Wren back to bed, and rolled her head to the left where Wren was rubbing his eyes.

“Morning,” Katrisha half mumbled.

“Why are you down here?” Kiannae half demanded.

“Mmm, couldn’t sleep.”  Katrisha yawned.  “Heard music, and went down stairs, found Varmun playing, and Wren asleep on the balcony.  I think he put us both to bed up here.”

“Ok.” Kiannae frowned, there was still just a twinge of jealousy.  “I’m hungry,” she said putting it aside.  “I hope breakfast is soon.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Breakfast in the westward dining hall was much the same as dinner.  Though with fewer light shows, and far more disheveled children, particularly Katrisha, and Wren who had slept in their robes.  All three had failed to brush their hair by the point Kiannae had insisted she was too hungry, and so Mercu had fetched a brush which they had each been using in turn as food was served.  It not completely up to the best standards of decorum, but was passable for children.

Katrisha, and Kiannae had brushed their own hair in turn, and Katrisha was in the process of brushing Wren’s as their food was set in front of them.  Kiannae continued to having pangs of jealousy, but was feeling stupid, as she hadn’t offered to brush Katrisha’s hair either.

“I know you are not scheduled to stay long,” Meloria asked as her children began poking at their food.  “But what are your plans?”

“I have unexpected matters to attend to with Daven, if the Duke Regent has nothing of importance to report, and remains too unwell to speak with me,” Laurel answered.

“I do wish he would submit to healing, there is no cause to suffering through this cold he has,” Meloria said with some displeasure.

“He’s as devout with his convictions as his brother it seems,” Mercu said in an even, metered tone.

“Oh, I assure you,” Meloria smiled in a faintly disingenuous fashion, “no one is as devout as my husband.  Alas I fear the Duke Regent does not have his brother’s constitution.  No common ailment would dare challenge his noble form.”

“I do believe you are right,” Mercu remarked.  “I do not think I have seen Arlen sick a day in the past fifteen years.”

“I think I saw him sniffle once,” Katrisha offered.

“So not completely impervious,” Meloria laughed, “just insufferably close.”  She turned to Laurel, “What is your business with Daven?  If it is not too sensitive of course.”

“Not at all,” Laurel nodded.  “Just a small matter I was asked to see to personally.  I have enough apprentices of my own, and a gifted young man has manifested in Aldermor.”

“Oh,” Meloria said shrewdly, “you may not have luck there.  He’s two already, taken on just in the last three months.  Plus his own children, it’s slowed down his more complicated work.”

“Who were the parents?” Laurel asked more than a bit curious.  “Not a traveling mage I dare hope?”

“No, no.”  Meloria shook her head.  “Nothing so scandalous.  Stranger in fact, a blacksmith’s daughter on one hand, and a fishing captain’s son on the other.  Neither of them have linage, but each of their parents are contentedly married by all accounts.  It seems there is a rash of emergants.  Daven has expressed some consternation on the matter, he says they are quite strong too.”

“How peculiar,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “The mother of the young man I am to speak for confessed that while she did sleep with a traveling mage – she suspected the father was actually a local boy.  She blamed the mage for his sake.  Three strong emergents in one generation in Avrale.  That would be more than peculiar.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The inside of Daven’s flame was as curious a sight onto itself.  Most of the floors were open framework surrounded in tinted glass – with abstract arrangements of mirrors that helped it glimmer at dawn, and dusk.  It was no more stairs than Laurel was used to climbing back home, but still a tiresome endeavor to reach the study on the top floor.

“Ah Laurel,” an elderly man said as Laurel ascended the last step.  He began to walk over to his guest.  “Do forgive me for not coming down.  I do not trust these two alone for a minute.”  He gestured to a young man, and woman who sat opposite each other at a workbench, visibly glanced up at each other, and giggled.

“It’s most alright Daven, and I am glad you remember me.  We have only met the once when you visited Brokhal some years ago.  Are your new students troublemakers?” Laurel asked curiously.

“After a fashion,” Daven glared at the two, and any hint of giggling ceased.  “It’s no place of mine to judge, but I’ll not have their parents set upon me for them dallying under my roof.”  He offered a hand to Laurel.

“Ah the troubles of youth.”  Laurel nodded, and shook the older man’s hand.  “Initially my visit was to be on behalf of a young man from Aldermor, but on hearing the news of your two students – giving my word aside – curiosity insisted that I visit.  Is it true they are both emergent?”

“So it would seem,” Daven nodded.  “The fathers both trust their wives implicitly.  None the less…well let me show you.”  He walked over to a shelf, and picked up a rod, and a large instrument with two curved prongs.  “Strictly speaking this is all conjecture, but do you know what this is,” he raised the pronged object.

“I’ll wager it measures something,”  Laurel said with the tilt of his head.  “I don’t recall precisely what, it’s been years since I’ve dabbled in advanced enchantment.”

“Simply it measures strand density in magical effects,” Daven said absently.  “It’s not exactly a precise science, as it must be calibrated to ambient sources.  This here,” he indicated the rod, “is a calibration tool.  It’s an old one, but doing the math for decay I know precisely how strong it should be.  Now fluctuations happen all the time, we enchanters mostly ignore them, since they are hard to find a baseline to measure against.”

“And you think a fluctuation happened recently?” Laurel wagered a guess.

“Well, recently being a relative thing,” Daven nodded.  “You are aware of Vemdel’s law are  you not?’  Laurel searched his memory, but upon taking too long Daven simply sighed at him.  “Court mages, you always forget the basics.  Too caught up in politics, and flashy showmanship to really appreciate the academic.  Vemdel’s law says that the rate of decay of an enchantment is inversely proportional to the ambient strands available during infusion.”

“So the age of the rod is the key here?” Laurel wagered another guess.  It had been a long time since someone had lectured him on anything magical, and he had forgotten how much he did not like it.

“Yes, quite,” Daven placed the rod between the prongs, and a rune formed above it.  “Twice as strong as it should be, give or take.  That implies exceptional excess ambient strands at the time.  Now this rod, it’s old, usually I’d have thrown it out, but it was made by my daughter, her, first notable enchanting success.  As such I also know precisely when it was made, and that was within weeks of when these two,” he gestured at his clearly distracted students, “hypothetically would have been conceived.”  He stood up a bit straighter.  “Now, I’ve done some measurements against some of my own work at the time, under the guise of ‘checking in.’ All of it, within about a two month period has decayed about half as much as it should have.  With results to either end trailing off to within margins for error.”

“So there was a significant spike,” Laurel mused.  “You think that caused a rash of emergants?”

“The rash of emergents I can confirm,” Daven said firmly, “the rest remains speculative.  What is not speculation is the farther west, the more one can find.  Two here, fifteen on Carth.  That’s just counting the major ones, I think there are a lot extra minor gifts kicking around, that no one has, or will notice.”

“A third major one out east in Aldermor,” Laurel added.  “Assuming the mother is right, and the father wasn’t a passing caravan mage.”

“Is that so,” Daven mused.  “There is a bit more to my speculation.  You are a student of the sky are you not?  I seem to recall hearing you have quite the orrery built up in your tower at Broken Hill.”

“Yes,” Laurel admitted.  “A hobby of sorts.”

“You know then of the dark companion?” Daven pressed.

“The hypothesis, yes,” Laurel said curiously.  “There have been some theories put forth, mathematical proofs based on orbital anomalies that claim to predict the path, but no observation has been made to prove it’s existence.  That is in part why it is called ‘dark’ because if it is there, it cannot be seen.”

“There have been several major bursts of emergent gifts recorded since the dawn of the Empire, and a few implied by pre-imperial record,” Daven started again.  “Now the date ranges are all very fuzzy for most of these surges in gift, but checking against them, and the period of the observable spike, and conception of this latest batch of emergents – then checking it against several of the projected orbital paths, one matches up.  Or rather it matches up with approximately when Thaea would pass through the path of the ‘companion.’”

“Have you submitted your findings to the Council?” Laurel asked suddenly quite interested.

“Not yet,” Daven shook his head, “nor am I sure I will bother.  The council has been no fan of mine since I resigned, and further has taken a dim view on conjectures regarding the ‘dark companion’ for, truthfully as long as I was in their number.”

“Unfortunate,” Laurel said disappointedly.

“Yes,” Daven nodded.  “Perhaps I will get around to it.  I need to project the course forward a bit, and make some observational attempts.  I don’t expect to see anything, no one ever has.”  He paused for a moment.  “So the boy in Aldermor, what of him?  It seems he was the original reason for your visit?”

“I’m a obliged, as a matter of course to ask if you would take him on as an apprentice,” Laurel said with a shrug.  “Yet under the circumstances I have no illusions you will do so.”

“No,” Daven shook his head.  “Much too busy with those two,” he gestured at his students again.  “I saw that,” he raised his voice slightly.  The two pulled their hands apart quickly, and pretended to have been working the whole time.  “I will put the two of you in separate labs if you can’t stay on task.”

“I wish you the best of luck with that,” Laurel laughed reservedly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 9th, 644 E.R.

All were gathered in the courtyard at Wesrook Tower to bid goodbye to guests.  It was still early, and the twins were their usual sleepy selves.

“You are sure you can not stay longer?” Meloria implored more out of polite manner, than any real pressure.  She was actually quite aware of the schedules to be kept.

“Much as I would like to avoid South Rook entirely,” Laurel laughed, “I fear I must attend my appointments there.  At least by virtue of taking the western road I will have to stop there only once.”

“You must visit again,” Meloria said insistently.  “And bring these darlings with you again,” she added leaning a bit towards the twins, and Wren.  “And good Mercu as well,” she said with a smile.

“Wild horses could not keep me away my lady,” Mercu said with a nod of the head.

“Ah,” Meloria grinned, “but might they bring you?  I really must learn more of this breed from out east.”

“I will see you all at Broken Hill in a few weeks,” Charles said with a bow, seemingly directed particularly at Katrisha.

Millarae trotted up to Katrisha, and pulled slightly on her sleeve.  Confused Katrisha relented to lean closer.  Millarae got up on her toes, close to Katrisha’s ear, and failed entirely to whisper in spite of all other efforts to be conspiratorial, “My brother likes you.”

“I don…” Charles started defensively, and then cut himself off.  “I think you, and your sister are becoming fine ladies of the court.  Nothing more.”

“You like her,” Millarae said snootily, and stuck her tongue out at her brother.

Meloria covered her mouth to try and contain her laughter.  Katrisha narrowed her eyes at Charles – something seemed very fishy to her about the whole thing.  She was distracted however when Meloria spoke up.  “Should such a thing come to pass, it has my blessing.  Either of you girls would make darling additions to the family!”

“That might be a bit politically complicated,” Laurel offered, wary of Katrisha’s history with Charles, if not so many other issues.

“Ah but not strictly forbidden,” Meloria offered.  “If it is true love, ways can be found.”

“I assure you there is some distance to be walked along that road.”  Mercu cautioned, with humor.

“Ah, but that there is a road at all,” Meloria mused, “a lady can dream.”

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Chapter 12

The land did fold, the hills did swell,
mid valley deep and shallow dell,
twas born fair Avrale,

a Queen she rose, ‘fore days of kings,
she set the Rooks, she made the peace,
upon the Broken Hill,

from Summers North, to Evenings West,
Southern Hearth, and Morning’s Breath,
these fair Towers stand,

these keepers were, the keepers are,
of golden field, forest green, n’ winding vale,
in noble Avrale.

– Every Vale, circa 50 E.R.

The Western Road

Coria 5th, 644 E.R.

A well adorned coach rolled through the early morning streets of Brokhal.  Such adornment was appropriate, as it indicated the importance of some of the occupants.  It was not however as Laurel would prefer to travel, for he did not thrive on attention the way Mercu did.  When he had traveled to Nohrook his visit was to be discrete – to some extent.  An adorned royal coach headed north would have fanned fears for any who knew of affairs in Osyrae.  Such was the argument he had made, and there had been no protest on that occasion.

Had there been any argument for subtlety on a tour of western Avrale, it was moot, for Mercu insured that it was deemed vital that the young Ladies Ashton be presented in style, as future mages of Avrale.  As to the young Ladies in question, they slept that morning, given they had not for much of the previous night.

Mercu himself sat half awake next to the twins, and opposite Laurel.  He had claimed, once the effort of loading half sleeping children was past, that it had been his plan all along to keep them subdued and manageable.  He had after all done everything he could to fan their natural excitement leading up to the trip, and had paid with his own sleep deprivation in the end.  Laurel had been minimally impacted by the whole affair, and as such felt more pity than scorn for his weary companion that morning.

Laurel looked out the window as the coach turned up the northern fork of the road leading away from western Brokhal.  He grimaced.

With the knowledge that comes from years of close company, Mercu smiled, and spoke as though reading Laurel’s mind.  “You know I’m right, it’s better this way.”

“Oh you are right,” Laurel sighed, “but it’s the principle of it.  I hate these trips, and extending them for scenic detours goes against the grain for me.”

“And the reason you hate these trips is the attention, and the demands of the little people.”  Mercu laughed.  “Much quieter to take the scenic route.”

“You know it’s not the little people,” Laurel muttered.

“Oh but isn’t it?” Mercu said with a shake of his head.  “No one more little, and petty than the scattered pretenders to royal authority.  So tiresome.”

“And yet you adore their time, and attention,” Laurel counters incredulously.

“The most fun of things, are always tiresome.”  Mercu grinned impishly.

“Aren’t they though,” Laurel laughed.  “Though, I would be mindful of calling Duke’s petty, and tiresome, given one’s son is sitting up behind you.”

“Charles,” Mercu chimed, “remind me, does your father style himself Duke, or Knight Commander?”  There was no answer from the front of the coach, and though it was not visible to anyone but Horence beside him, the already put out young man scowled a bit more.  He was happy to be headed west, but not at all thrilled with the company he was being forced to keep, and as such had chosen not to sit inside the coach, next to two girls he was not always on the best of terms with.

After a rather long stretch of Laurel’s disapproving gaze Mercu shrank slightly.  “Sorry,” he said with a sigh, “just having a bit of fun.”  He paused, thinking of a way to change the subject.  “Speaking of tiresome fun,” he said thoughtfully.  “Is it just me, or was the Lady Alice positively glowing this morning?”

Laurel considered Mercu shrewdly.  “More than you know,” he said with a nod.  “I dare say her aura is brighter than it has been in years, since before she gave up her studies.”

“Interesting,” Mercu said leaning forward.  “Do you think?” he asked in a hushed tone.

“I suspect, yes,” Laurel nodded.

“How delightful,” Mercu laughed and leaned back.

Laurel hummed slightly, and stroked his beard.

“What hmm?” Mercu prodded.

“Well, look who’s awake,” Laurel said, making every effort to appear not to be dodging the question.

Mercu turned to see Kiannae leaned against the coach door, staring out at the passing scenery.

Kiannae rubbed her eyes.  “What time is it?” she asked sleepily.

Laurel held out his hand, and a series of concentric marked rings formed, with a bobbing pyramid at its center that turned, wobbled, and came to rest.  “Almost seven,” he said, and waved the intricate configuration away.  Kiannae looked back out the window – she had mostly mastered a basic version of the spell herself, but was too drowsy to have tried.

Katrisha shifted, and clung tightly to her sister’s arm, giving no indication she was ready to rouse fully herself.  Kiannae rocked her head against her sister’s, and began to draw glowing lines absently in the air.  She paid no mind to keep them in tow with her, and so they trailed through the coach past Laurel.

Kiannae grew bored of absent minded magic, and decided to practice the spell Laurel had used to tell the time.  She poked, and prodded at it a bit, being uninterested in watching the slow crawl of time, and the pyramid changed its behavior, going from following the sun, to pointing northward.  Kiannae scrunched up her face with some confusion.  “Why are we going north?” she asked with some surprise.

“Mercu’s idea,” Laurel said restraining mild consternation from his voice.  “More scenic route, and I believe he’s arranged a special meeting along the way.”

“What meeting?” Kiannae asked her curiosity piqued.

“I’d rather not say,” Mercu said shrewdly, “I wasn’t able to confirm the arrangement, so it might be nothing more than a pleasant detour.”

Kiannae pouted, but Mercu simply smiled at her, and eventually she gave up, and looked back out the window in a huff.  After several more minutes she crossed her arms, and declared, “I’m bored.”  The act of which pulled her arm from Katrisha, jostling her awake.  Katrisha rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked around.

“We’ve quite a ways still to Aldermor,” Laurel said taking a breath, and braced for dealing with the girls becoming difficult so soon.

“I have read there was a time when Sylvans lived in Aldermore,” Mercu offered thoughtfully.  “A group that had settled down from the highland tribes, that have also long since left Avrale.”

“I thought the Sylvan’s only lived in the great forest,” Kiannae said curiously.

“It was a long time ago,” Mercu nodded, “hundreds of years at least even before the empire came here.  “The Sylvans had tribes that extended through the highlands, while the people of Avrale dwelled in the valleys below.  Except in Aldermor, where the highlanders would trade with us lowlanders.  They say ever so often a child is stillborn there to this day, with adorned ears, or eyes like the two of you.”

“Why did the Sylvan’s leave?” Katrisha asked.

“War,” Mercu said with a frown, “but not between us and them.  When Osyrae came the first time into the northern vales, the highland Sylvans deemed themselves above the squabbles of lowlanders.  That started some bad blood I think.  What I’ve read though said they remained another thirty or so years, till the death of the reigning queen, when her son took the throne.  There seems to be consensus that is when the exodus began.”

“Did the new king make them leave?” Kiannae frowned.

“I can’t really say,” Mercu shrugged.  “There is no clear record of any direct action, no royal decrees in any of the books, but it was a very very long time ago.  So many wars, and changes of power, and the fall of the old tower at Broken Hill.  Who knows what happened that long ago.”

Katrisha and Kiannae were clearly displeased by the lack of any real answer, and Mercu shook his head.  “What I do have,” he carried on, “is an old story purportedly told by a Sylvan elder of Aldermor, to a scribe of the day.”  The two perked up, and Mercu smiled.

“It is said that the goddess Laeune had three children,” Mercu began. “Most lore agrees upon this number, or takes no stance.  Amongst them were Brother Wolf, Sister Lynx, and Yaun the Light, the first man – or woman – on this there is contention.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“Many believe Yaun to have been a man,” Mercu said with a shrug, “others contend the first as a man is a preposterous fallacy, as children inevitably resulted.  Forget that any which way you slice it, the myth is fraught with problems of how one human became many.  This though is the story of how Yaun, the youngest, came to rule.”

“Brother Wolf, and Sister Lynx one day argued over who was mother’s favored child.  Each brought before Laeune many gifts hunted from far and wide across the world, trying to earn Laeune’s favor, and spur her to declare a favorite.  For such a plan to work they could not tell their mother of their competition.  Laeune was pleased at first, but grew weary of her children pestering her with gifts.”

“Seeking quiet and rest, Laeune snuck away while her children scurried off to seek more offerings, and borrowed a boat from Vhale, her grandson, and floated down a river through a wide wood.  As she dreamt, at last free to slumber without bother, she wondered upon her youngest, who had long ago begun to wander and rarely returned home.”

“As Laeune’s boat drifted to the base of a great mountain, she found Yaun sunning upon a high rock by the river, and sleepily considering a brilliant gem of many colors in the sun’s light.  Laeune asked what her child held, and with a smile Yaun said that it was the most precious of things, a single tear Laeune had cried when Yaun’s first child was born.”

“A tear was a gem?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“There is a gem named such,” Laurel said thoughtfully, “and it does match the description.  It is a clear gem that refracts any light into many colors.  Still, it is not an actual tear.”

“The story says otherwise,” Mercu grumbled, and continued.  “It so happened that Brother Wolf and Sister Lynx each had come to hunt below the mountain that same day, and heard as Laeune proudly proclaimed Yaun her favorite, for such a treasured moment.  Each were infuriated and driven to rage.  They were bested by their younger sibling, and each plotted cruel vengeance for the slight.”

“How terrible.”  Katrisha crossed her arms and pursed her lips.

“Days later, Yaun strode the forest that was home to the eldest children of man, unaware of cold calculating eyes that watched her every step.  Nor were Brother Wolf or Sister Lynx aware they stalked the same prey.  As Wolf and Lynx pounced, they found themselves entwined with one another, and not their intended victim.  Yet anger fueled their fight even more, and their wounds were grievous.”

“There was much shame when Wolf and Lynx each woke to find their wounds tended by Yaun.  They could see in sad eyes, that Yaun knew what they had tried to do.  Nonetheless Yaun cared for each with such compassion.  Laeune, who had been dwelling near had seen the whole affair, and interceded upon Yaun’s behalf, misguiding her wrathful children to attack one another and not her most beloved.”

“Later, when Yaun was away, Laeune came before Wolf and Lynx.  She told them what she knew, and proclaimed that, ‘Never shall you, or your heirs rein.  Though I still love you, you have proven unworthy – but this one, whom you sought to harm, has shown you kindness.  To Yaun’s heirs I leave the all the world where my light falls.  Ever shall you pay your debt, as servant, and protector to Yaun’s blood, and in such you shall regain my respect.’”

“What did that have to do with the Sylvan’s leaving Aldermor?” Kiannae protested.

“It was a good enough story I suppose,” Katrisha consented, “but yes, what was the point?”

“Well,” Mercu laughed, “you see that is the story as I first read it, but I am told there is more.”

“Well?” Kiannae prodded.

“I knew a man,” Mercu answered, “a good fellow, though I must admit when I first met him I mistook him for a woman.”

“Did you now?” Laurel laughed.

Mercu gave Laurel a snide smile.  “He was a generation or so removed from the Sylvan lands, but his family kept some traditions alive.  I got him talking over drinks, that I bought in apology for my aforementioned mistake.  I’ll admit precisely how the topic came up I’m hazy, there were quite a few drinks involved.”

Laurel clearly repressed another laugh, and Mercu continued.  “At any rate, he said that the story, as he knew it, goes on to tell that Yaun’s children grew arrogant, and did not learn the lesson of Wolf and Lynx.  They set upon each other, and warred, and did many terrible things.  So it was that the Lynx’s children left the lands of men.  For you see – the Sylvans are the Lynx in the fable.”

“That’s why our eyes are the way they are?” Kiannae asked.

“We are part cat?” Katrisha laughed.  “Kat!  My name is Kat!  Is it true?”

“Well,” Laurel interjected, “that is the common wisdom, with what evidence there is.  Sylvans do normally bare both the slit eyes, and pointed tufted ears of a Lynx.  Half blood’s such as you two, and your brother tend to lack the ears, though you all, particularly Wren do have a slight point.”

Katrisha ran her fingers over her ear, and nodded.  

“One in a few hundred they say are born with fur, and decidedly feline features, maybe even a tail – which leads many to believe that ‘shaper’ magic was involved, that at some point in the past they made themselves part cat.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked scrunching her brow.

“Haven’t a clue.”  Laurel shrugged.  “It’s not even fully agreed upon theory.  The Sylvans by all account have nothing to say on the matter, they simply consider themselves to be, as they are.  Though I did once hear a man from Napir call them ‘the children of the wolves, and the cats.’”

“Wolves?” Katrisha asked a bit perplexed.

“There is another Sylvan forest, far to the east past Lycia,” Laurel answered stroking his beard, “More reclusive even than those who live to our north.  Purportedly they lack the slit eyes, but have even more pronounced ears – and there are tales of great, hulking wolf men among them.  I’ve never met one, nor do I know anyone who has.”

“But you were just talking about Napir,” Kiannae protested.

“Ah, yes,” Laurel said with a nod. “In the high passes, and south from the Storm Peak in Napir live small mixed tribes, purportedly of both breeds, but their bloodlines have been thinned with each other, and the common folk of the land.  Still, even amongst these are tall tales of ‘great lions’, and ‘mighty wolves.’  I couldn’t tell you if they are any more than tales though.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Aldermor was a small village, which seems to cling tenaciously to the edge on a wide raised tract of land that looked out over a very broad stretch of the local vale.  Fields stretched as far as the eye could see below, but only a few scattered alder trees broke up the rocky, overgrown area between the village, and the higher hills behind it.  Even the wild shrubs, and grasses seemed slightly sickly, and it was reasonable to assume the locals had long decided this land was of no use to try and cultivate, but a passable place for a village overlooking the fertile lands below.

Everyone but Horence had disembarked from the coach, which he had lead on across town to arrange a place to park it, and stable the horses.  Even the adults had rarely visited the quiet town, and all examined the area in more detail.

A long, freshly worn path lead off the main road from where they stood, to a far edge of the highland, where a small grove of trees stood beside the framework, and half finished walls of a large new structure. It rose defiantly where only crumbled low stone walls, and ancient foundations stood about.  This structure seemed odd, out of place even, but it meant little to the twins, who quickly lost interest in it.  

Charles seemed slightly more affected by the sight, which caught Katrisha’s curiosity for a moment before she recognized a woman in white, half surrounded by villagers.  She tugged at her sister’s sleeve, and then ran off towards Renae.  Kiannae followed at a more reserved pace, but cocked her head to the side when Katrisha veered off suddenly.

“Wren!” Katrisha yell, and then Kiannae noticed the boy, sitting on a short stone wall behind and to the side of the crowd.  At first Kiannae had not recognized her brother, who had let his hair get quite long, and had grown significantly in the past six months.

Wren looked up just in time to be scooped up by his taller sibling.  It was rather impressive to watch.  Wren was not much smaller than Katrisha, and did not look as though he could be so easily lifted by her – yet she had managed it, complete with spinning him about as she often did in greeting.

“Why aren’t you with your sister?” Charles asked, stepping up behind Kiannae, who had stopped to observe the curious chain of events.

“Why are you even here?” Kiannae asked crossly, as Mercu walked by towards the village shops, giving the pair’s exchange only a passing glance, and Laurel moved on towards Renae.

“I am going to visit my mother,” Charles said tersely.  “She lives in Wesrook, with my uncle, and my sister.”

“Yes,” Kiannae sighed, “but why are you here, with us?”

“I am no happier about it than you are,” Charles grumbled.  “It was my father’s idea.”

“Whatever for?” Kiannae said shaking her head.

“He said I should be nicer to the two of you,” Charles said uncertainly, as though it wasn’t exactly what he’d been told.  Kiannae had never though much more of Charles father, than the boy himself.  It seemed like a good thing, but it also seemed out of character, and the hesitation in the way Charles had said it seemed dubious.

Any further thought on the matter was abated as Renae walked up, crouched down, and hugged Kiannae to her.  “Hello dear,” she said sweetly, held the girl back out at arm’s length, then looked her up and down.  “How are you doing, and who’s your friend?”

“He’s n…” Kiannae started a bit terse, but thought better of it, “he’s Charles,” she finished instead.

“Ah,” Renae said considering the boy again.  “Sir Arlen’s son, yes?” Renae asked delicately, the boy had done nothing to earn her ire, but the way he looked at her was not particularly friendly.  It was apparent the boy was well aware of his father’s opinion of Renae, and knew who she was.  It was less clear how much stock he put in it.

“Yes,” Charles acknowledged, “heir of Wesrook.”

“Ah yes,” Renae said thoughtfully, she had heard pieces of that story.  “So it is true what I’ve heard, that your father is the Duke proper, and retains the right to the seat in his absence?”  Charles simply nodded.  “Curious,” Renae remarked, and stood, taking Kiannae’s hand.  “Come, let us join your sister, and Wren.”

Kiannae glanced back at Charles as they walked away.  She had heard Mercu before on the ride, but hadn’t really been paying attention.  She wasn’t really sure what to make of it, the annoying boy wasn’t a knight’s son after all.  It was worse, he was a duke’s.

“So what are you doing here?” Katrisha asked ruffling Wren’s long hair, which he went about straightening afterword.

“Renae is here to help oversee the construction of a new Cloister,” Wren said as he motioned to the distant half finished building.

“Another?” Katrisha said curiously.

“Yes,” Renae said as she walked up, Kiannae in tow. “Things are getting a bit cramped back home, and the locals have welcomed us here.  Though we needed to get assurance of the King’s consent.”

“Why wouldn’t the King approve?” Katrisha asked tilting her head.

“It’s not a question of whether the King would approve,” Renae said thoughtfully, “so much as if he would be willing to make his approval official.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“Not all care much for our order,” Renae said with a forced smile.

“Why?” Katrisha prodded in turn.  There had always been hints on the matter, but never answers.

“To be honest, I often wonder myself,” Renae said with a sigh.  She glanced at Charles, who had walked off in his own direction.  She was more than glad he would not do her the service of explaining.

“It’s because our kindness weakens their grip on the people’s hearts,” Wren said bitterly.  Everyone looked to Wren a bit curiously.  “That’s what Audry’s mother says,” he shrugged.

“She’s probably not wrong,” Renae agreed hesitantly.  She wasn’t happy to have the girl’s opinions stirred so.  They showed signs of growing into hot headedness, and expressing open anti-Clarion sentiments would do them no favors.  “Still, we grin, and bear life’s troubles – one can only do so much, and those who will not listen, will not be persuaded.”

Laurel walked up then, and looked a bit flustered.  “I must…thank you…for bringing that issue to my attention,” he said with some annoyance.

“I’m sorry,” Renae said, somewhat disingenuously.  “The boy’s trouble – I’m not keen on saddling the new Matron down here with that kind of fuss, but there is no question he is gifted.”

“No,” Laurel said shaking his head. “I don’t think that would do at all well, another year or two, and he’ll be running amok with any young girl who will give him the time of day.  No sense making that easier.”

“Indeed,” Renae said, “though perhaps it would rub off some of the rough edges.”

“I’ve told his grandfather I will speak to Daven personally.  I’ve already two apprentices of my own after all,” Laurel said looking to the twins.  “I’ve no wish for a third, and a troublemaker at that.  Given he’s already whipping up little dust devils on his own, with no training, I suspect he’ll turn a proper enchanter’s education into passable combat magic, and run off with a caravan in a few years.  It’s unfortunate the only druids that are easy to get ahold of are so far away, his talent seems suited to their practices.”

“I suspect you are right,” Renae said thoughtfully.  “I rather think the boy would do better with us, than Daven though.  I believe your predictions of his fate down that road are quite right, that’s a dangerous life to doom him to.”

“He might take to the discipline, and stick around.  It would be his choice of course, in the end,” Laurel said somewhat absently.  “Still, if you wish to convince the new Matron to take the boy on, it’s little difference to me.  It would keep him closer to his mother.  I’ve made my promise to speak on his behalf – then perhaps he will have options.  Though given the option, I haven’t much doubt what he will choose.”

Katrisha looked back, and forth between the two adults.  “You said mother, and grandfather,” she said curiously.

“Hasn’t he a father, why can none of them teach him?” Kiannae chimed in.

Laurel winced.  “His father, by all reasonable accounts was a caravan mage who passed through this town once.  He’s not been back.”

“How awful,” Katrisha frowned.

“If he’s got his father’s sense, he might be better off in a Cloister,” Laurel sighed.  “He’ll be less likely to cause a girl trouble that way.”

“What do you mean?” Kiannae asked.

Laurel looked to be half way through formulating a dodge for that question, when Mercu sauntered up, flowers in hand.  This seemed to distract him thoroughly.  “I bring a gift, dear lady,” Mercu said with a bow.

Renae didn’t seem quite sure what to do, and finally relented to reach out, and take the flowers.  “Aren’t these the one’s the shopkeeper had on the counter?” she asked.

“The same,” Mercu admitted.

“I have no where to put them,” Renae laughed.  “What ever were you thinking?”

“Of that darling perplexed look on your face, of course,” Mercu said with an impish grin.  “Yet far be it from me to make the lady carry the load.  I shall hold them for you until such time as we can find a place to set them properly.”  He held out his hand again, and took the flowers back, then proceeded to loop his arm with Renae’s.  “Off then we go, on a grand quest for a table!”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The Inn in Aldermor sat directly on the cliff face, and it’s dining hall protruded in an arc such that windows faced both west, and east down the valley.  It gave a lovely view of the sunset down the vale to the west, and surely did as well for sunrise.  The three siblings sat side by side, with Katrisha in the middle.  Wren was half asleep on her arm.  His energy had proved no match for his sisters’ as they explored the old ruins.  Though part of Wren’s exhaustion was owed to the fact he had sprained his ankle quite badly, and healed it himself.  Renae had found out anyway, and scold him for being reckless.

Laurel would likely have received most of the scolding, had Renae learned that in her absence the children had been allowed to run completely free.  Even without having attracted Renae’s ire, Laurel seemed a bit distant, and reserved as the company sat around the table for dinner.  The twins for their part were also tired enough to not enquire where Renae and Mercu had been most of the afternoon.

“I’ve been thinking,” Mercu said idly – setting his fork aside.  “This gifted boy,” he continued, “what are the odds of him having this gift, when his mother did not?”

“Little less than half,” Laurel said absently.  “Statistically speaking of course.  Maybe as much as ten percent to be as strong as it obviously is.”

“You think maybe the mother has some Sylvish blood in her?” Mercu pondered.

“Not impossible,” Laurel shrugged.  “Though there’s no sign of it.  Even a little might have skewed the odds in his favor.”

“Is that why we are so gifted?” Kiannae asked.

“Cause our father was Sylvan?” Katrisha added.

“Your mother was gifted as well,” Laurel said thoughtfully.  “From what I know of her, your grandmother was a woman of the Lycian Order.  A woman with the gift most often passes it to her children.”

“But not the father?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Correct,” Laurel nodded.  “Both parents contribute to the gift of their children, but conventional wisdom says the mother has the strongest influence on the presence of the gift, while the father has slightly more influence over the strength.  Still there are no guarantees.  True emergent gifts occur, even strong ones from no appreciable linage.”

“Do gifted parents ever have ungifted children?” Kiannae asked.

“No,” Laurel answered.  “If both have the gift it can diminish, but not disappear between generations.  That is why most Royal lines still have traces of the gift, since the most adequately prepared individuals at the time of the Council’s founding were gifted.  The Council wished to avoid returning to the cycle of mage kings, so they picked those with the best mixture of education, even temper, and where possible weaker gifts.”

“Why didn’t they want gifted people to rule?” Katrisha frowned.

“It seems kind of silly.  Wouldn’t the strongest mages make the best kings, and queens?” Kiannae added.

“That was the belief for a very long time,” Mercu interjected.  “Yet ruling a kingdom doesn’t require magic.  It wasn’t just rulership that the gifted people were pulled out of either, they were also removed from the armies.  The Dragon War carried a terrible price – so many mage lines were decimated, so many of the strongest, and most gifted lost – three fifths some say, others claim it was more.”

“So the Council decided,” Laurel said with a nod, “to pull together the surviving mage lines, to help rebuild our numbers.”

“And to discourage them from starting wars, by taking them out of the seats of power,” Mercu added.  “After all – mages have power enough to begin with.  Make one a King, and it’ll go to their head.”

“As if it wouldn’t go to your head,” Laurel shot back.

“What can I say,” Mercu laughed, “I’m a passionate sort.”

Laurel rolled his eyes, and glanced at Renae, who had seemed uneasy for some time, and was staring out the windows at the sunset.  She seemed not to want to make any eye contact, and stopped eating.  

“We are what we are,” Laurel said with a sigh – and picked at his plate.  “I don’t think the council is wrong in their stance,” he continued, shifting his tone.  “Nor do I think they are right.  Perhaps it’s a prudent precaution, but those few kingdoms who slipped through the cracks and are still ruled by minor mages…they aren’t causing any more trouble than the rest.”

“I hear the prince of Western Palentine is something of a nuisance,” Mercu retorted.

“Only to his cousin in the East,” Laurel laughed, “and that’s more of a Clarion-Lycian squabble than a magely one.  Also, far more political, than volatile.  Palentine is almost obnoxiously stable.  They bluster, and fuss openly, but behind the scenes things are quite tame.”

“True,” Mercu nodded thoughtfully.  “I suppose the bigger problem is a lack of rules regarding Paladin Kings.”

Laurel simply huffed with amusement.

“Excuse me,” Renae said, and looked as though she was about to get up.

Mercu caught her hand gently.  “Are you alright, dear Lady?”  He glanced at her plate.  “You have hardly eaten.”

“You are kind to worry.  Thank you, just things on my mind.  So much to do.”

“Have we somehow offended?”  Mercu pressed.

“Oh – no, not at all.  The company is charming, as always – if anything I feel I may have caused some.  Regardless, I will be honest that I am stuck upon something I cannot decide if I would rather remember, or forget.”

“Then unless you are truly feeling unwell, perhaps remain for the distraction?  Further if you are working yourself hard, you really should eat.”

Renae glanced at Laurel, the twins, and Wren.  “Perhaps you are right.  I do apologise if I am not talkative.”

“I assure you dear Lady, I can talk for two,” Mercu offered whimsically.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 6th, 644 E.R.

Breakfast brought the same view in reverse as dinner had the previous evening, with the sun shining down the valley from the east.  Wren was more awake that morning, while his sisters were the drowsiest ones at the table, with their heads lain on their arms over the table as they waited for food to arrive.

“Will I be joining you on your trip?” Wren asked as Laurel arrived late to the gathering.

“I am told that is the plan,” Laurel nodded, and rolled his head to the side, stretching his neck.  “I’ve no objections of course – you should have more time with your sisters.”

Katrisha perked up at this news.  “Wren’s coming with us?”

“Yes,” Mercu answered.  “I figured he could use a chance to see more of Avrale – so I arranged for Renae to bring him along on her trip here, and spent a good deal of time convincing her to let him join us.”

Renae laughed, and sipped at her cranberry juice.  “As if you worked so hard.”

“Enjoying one’s tasks does not make them a lack of work,” Mercu shot back, “it is rather the satisfaction of a job well done, that makes enjoying the work all the more pleasurable.”

“Well,” Renae smirked, “you did do quite well.”

“Must you two?” Laurel said rubbing his eyes tiredly.

Renae looked away, a bit embarrassed, but Mercu for his part casually shrugged.  The contrary illusion as to which of the two seemed the elder was for the moment exaggerated.  Any question as to the meaning of the exchange from the half awake children was cut off, as food arrived.

“You at least seem in better spirits this morning,” Mercu offered.

“I am, I thank you for encouraging me to stay for dinner last night.  Melancholy can become quite treacherous at my age.  Truly, I do not know what I was thinking trying to leave, there is more comfort at this table for what ails me.  I lost my daughter so long ago…and never got the chance to know my granddaughter.”

“I did not know you had a child,” Laurel commented, “or had lost her.  My condolences.”  That word seemed to make Renae cringe a bit.

“It was well before I met either of you.  She was a young woman before I first wandered from Avrale.  Neither I, nor my mother could keep her at the Cloister.  I have always thought at heart she wanted to be a mage, though I was the one who wandered afar in her absence.  When I returned both my mother, and daughter had passed, and my son in law wanted no part of me for his child.”

“That does sound a rough lot,” Mercu offered kindly.

“Were it not for Adria I would have felt entirely alone in the world.”

“Do forgive me if I am impertinent, but it was not a Clarion mater, was it?”  Mercu asked.  “I wonder only because such squabbles – and they are not always so gentle – were the subject when you thought to leave last night.”

“No – no, nothing quite so…” Renae sighed.  “You are not impertinent, I will assure you, but no I would rather not speak of it.”

“Forgive me then,” Mercu offered.

“If there is anything to forgive, it is on my part.  Let us eat,” Renae said with soft smile, only slightly forced.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Wesrook was not the largest city of Avrale, only the third.  Yet approaching it from the east, through the vineyards of the Serpent’s Spine, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for the largest city in all the western kingdoms.  The castle, and proud tower from which the city took its name sat on a bluff above a sheltered bay.  It brought commerce in from the island of Carth to the west, Osyrae and the free cities to the north, and from so far south as Napir.

Wesrook was rich, it was sprawling, and one could hear the clamor of the city in the day, all the way up in the high hills.  The view from the high road was like looking at a living map, the winding streets, and clustered buildings laid out below in an intricate web.  The impression lingered as well, as the road wound back and forth, a half mile at a time, to descend over five hundred feet to the city below.  It was a reminder – if the endless foothills that framed the valleys of the kingdom were not enough – that Avrale was built within a mountain range.

Far off in the distance, across a narrow straight, great hills could be seen to rise out of the mists, with a volcanic crater smoldering at the island’s north end.  This was the farthest vantage point visible from any of the roads of the old empire.  The distant mists of Carth, as seen from the high road were the things of famous poetry, and paintings.  One of which the twins had seen before, though neither could recall precisely where in the castle it hung.  It depicted the great eruption of the northern peak over a hundred years prior.

As the coach came lower, closer to the level of the city it became more evident that the tower of Wesrook was not its only prominence.  A great gleaming spire rose near the center of the city, much taller than even the highest mansions around it.  The structure did not seem to be stone, or even metal – there was only one thing that immediately came to mind from the way it glimmered – glass.

The coach would have been quite cramped, had all its occupants been fully grown.  Yet as most were young children, six sat in relative comfort, though Mercu found himself inclined to favor being pressed up against Laurel, giving the slightly gloomy boy to his right a wide berth.

As the twins pointed, and demanded to know what the tower was, Mercu explained.  “That is Daven’s Flame – home of the enchanter Daven, perhaps the greatest of his craft alive today.  He was once the Arch Enchanter of the Council in Mordove, and one of the richest men of the east.”

“Why does he live here now?” Kiannae asked.

“They say he fell in love with a woman of Carth, Caladine I believe she called herself,” Mercu said sagely, “a trader of magical wares that had traveled far, and wide, in spite of her young age.  This enchantress he believed far better than the station in life she happily maintained, and he proposed to her.  Something of a scandal really.”

“Did they marry, and move here to be closer to her home?” Katrisha asked.

“The story goes that Daven’s love would not stay in Mordove, and he, an important man, would not leave,” Mercu mused somberly.  “Years past before Caladine came again to Mordove, and wounded as his pride was, Daven proposed again, but again she left.”

“So he followed?” Wren asked curiously.

“Not at first, no,” Mercu said.  “Daven was a proud man, but pride comes before every fall.  Eventually his heart brought him here, to seek the woman he loved.  He renounced his seat on the Council, sold his holdings in the east, and came to a foreign land – with no more than a hope.  I won’t say he wasn’t a fool, for love makes fools of us all.  The woman he sought was a wanderer, and it was years before she returned to Wesrook, on her way home.  Daven had settled in well to the city by then, being little worse for wear in riches, or prestige.”

“She said no again, didn’t she?” Katrisha sighed.

“Well,” Mercu laughed, “not precisely.  It’s a bit much for even me to believe, but the stories say that she told him if he truly loved her, that he need not follow.  That if his love shone as brightly as he claimed, she would see it from the shores of Carth itself.”

“Difficult woman,” Laurel laughed.

“Well,” Mercu mused, “undoubtedly, but it would seem that Daven was as stubborn.  It took a few years as I’ve heard it, before inspiration struck him, one night as he watched a light house up the coast.  First he had a tall tower built upon the corner of his mansion in the city.  This alone was a grandiose act that drew much attention, but he had an exterior frame work fashioned around the tower, which caused even more perplexed rumors.  Lastly loads, literally tons of sand were delivered, and he cast out all the workers, and all his servants.”

No one seemed to have anything to say, and Mercu smiled.  “They say it happened in one night, that the crazy fool did it all himself.  He used magic to forge the sand into pristine, perfect sheets of glass, and set them into to the framework of the tower.  In the morning the people gathered around, and looked up at the new gleaming spire in the midst of their city.  In the evening it shone brilliantly in the setting sun, like a frozen flame.  Days passed, then weeks, then at last a well adorned ship flying the colors of Carth came into port.”

“You see,” Mercu laughed, “the woman Caladine, was not just an enchanter.  Caladine was not even her real name, she was Cadinae, a Princess of Carth.  She was the youngest of her father’s children, too far from the throne to be a real heir.  She had run away when she had been only fifteen, seen the world, crafted her wares, had many lovers.  A few she favored above the rest.  Only one had followed, only one had finally done something to impress her.”

Mercu paused, enjoyed the silence, and then shrugged.  “That’s the story, and by all accounts it is at least mostly true.  She married the man who build the glass tower over Wesrook.  Though she had gotten on in years by then, her gift was strong, and she was still fertile enough to bare him one son, and a daughter.  They live up there, in the tower he built, to this very day.”

“You have at least one thing wrong,” Charles said smugly.

“How would you know?” Katrisha said crossly.

“Because I know Daven,” Charles retorted.  “He has done a great deal of work for my mother, and she has been to the royal palace on Carth.  She told him once that you could see his “flame” all the way from there, and he told her that he knew, he had meant for it to be visible from the palace.”

“How did he know?” Mercu asked curiously.

Charles pondered for a bit.  “He’d been a man of some importance in Mordove, as you say.  When a man was caught harassing his…companion of the time, he interrogated him personally.  The man was an agent of her father, who had tracked her all the way to Mordove.  That was when she left the first time.”

“What a lovely bit of intrigue to the story,” Mercu laughed.  “I’ll have to remember that.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Upon entry, the city of Wesrook was not as clean as it appeared from afar – though it was evident that great efforts were made, as evidenced by men sweeping the streets.  One wondered readily if it was truly a complete exercise in futility, or how much dingier things would be without their diligent work.  

The three siblings were struck quite thoroughly by deep lustrous bronze skin of the occasional northerner they passed along the way, and almost as surprised by the remarkable pale complexion of those from the far south.  Foreign dignitaries were not entirely uncommon at Broken Hill, but none had come from Osyrae, or Napir in the time the twins had resided there.  

One man in fine clothing sat on a bench by the roadside, feeding pigeons.  His skin was nearly pitch black, a sight even Mercu seemed struck by.  After they had passed Mercu explained that the man was surely from the Northern Wastes, and that he had rarely seen one of such pure blood so far south.

Laurel added that peoples of northern climates tended to have darker skin, to endure the sun which did not wane in the winter months.  Further that the pale skin of people from Napir was believed to give them some advantage against the long cold nights of their winters.

A fountain square dominated the middle of of the town, directly beneath the gleaming spire of Daven’s Flame that had begun to shimmer orange in the evening sun.  They had passed inns, both questionable, and fine, but had not stopped at any.  The twins had begun to wonder exactly where they were going, and Wren had simply drifted off on Katrisha’s shoulder after a long day’s ride.

As the coach turned north again, Kiannae was about to ask when Mercu answered the question out of hand.  “We will be staying at Wesrook Castle,” he said with a smile, “I am told we will be expected.”

Charles had known his destination from the beginning, and suspected that the others would be coming.  He was none the less displeased at the final confirmation.  “Mother does love to host guests,” he offered masking his feelings on the matter as best he could.

“The Lady of Wesrook is a lovely woman,” Mercu laughed.  “I wish she would visit Broken Hill more often, but something it seems keeps her away.”

Charles glared at Mercu, but said nothing.  Mercu simply shrugged the accusatory stare off, and continued.  “I’ve never had the privilege of staying in Wesrook tower before, I hear the view is quite stunning.”

“We live in a tower back home,” Kiannae stated dubiously.

“What’s the difference?” Katrisha asked.

“The ocean,” Charles answered before Mercu could.

“It’s not strictly speaking the ocean,” Mercu noted.  “Though close enough.  Waves still crash against the rocks below the tower.”

“I thought you hadn’t been,” Kiannae protested.

“I’ve been through Wesrook several times in my travels,” Mercu defended himself.  “And I’ve slept in ear shot of the ocean many times.  The waves here are muted some by Carth blocking the full fury of the sea, but they should still crash quite pleasantly to the shore beneath the cliff – from what I’ve seen passing through before.”

“It is one of the things I miss back home,” Charles said, “the sound of the ocean at night.”

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Chapter 11

What fears he that would be king of kings,
great power bound in the smallest things,
the storm woke madness in dragon’s heir,
what portent restrains that conqueror fair,
shadows they move where none should be,
seek the power of one the world shall see.

– Diary of Cassandra Alm, 338 E.R.

Fools & Errands

Coria 15th, 642 E.R.

“Is it true what I have heard,” Maraline asked of the twins as she moved to sit beside them on a bench in the upper courtyard.

“And what have you heard?” Kiannae pressed, looking up from her book.

“That the dragon they captured in Osyrae is larger than any feral dragon on record,” Maraline countered.

“I would think you would know as much as us,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“Were it so,” Maraline said with a huff of displeasure.  “Father will not speak of the matter to me.”

“We have only Jeoffrey’s estimations,” Katrisha offered, “but the reports do imply that it is unreasonably large for a lesser dragon.  It is possible he has overstated the matter.”

“Jeoffrey may have something of Mercu’s sense of humor, but on such a sensitive matter I have not heard him to exaggerate,” Maraline countered.

“I’m not concerned,” Kiannae said.  “The bigger, the better.  It will just prove all the more dangerous when it finally breaks lose.  That will disrupt any plans they have for us.”

“And if they do tame it?” Maraline shook her head.  “Then will it be better that it is such a massive beast?”

“That has yet to happen,” Katrisha offered.  “Lesser dragons are very temperamental, with intelligence approaching that of a human.  Smart enough to know that they only have to wait till they have the advantage.”

“I have heard that lesser dragons have been tamed in Napir,” Maraline said shrewdly.

“Only by other dragons,” Katrisha countered.

“And not well tamed at that,” Kiannae added.  “They guard wide tracts of uninhabitable land, but they must be kept in check by their elders.  Rarely eat people, but I think that’s only because we are not meaty enough.”

“How, horrid,” Maraline said nervously.

“Yes, so I am not worried so much by how big the one in Osyrae is,” Kiannae pressed, coming back to her point.  “More trouble for them.  Should not be a factor for us.”

Maraline paused a moment thoughtfully.  “I had heard you two were to travel around Avrale soon.”

“There had been plans,” Katrisha acknowledged, “but I do not think Laurel wished to, and present circumstances have given him excuse to postpone such a trip.”

“Wise nonetheless,” Maraline offered.

“I was looking forward to traveling,” Kiannae said a bit melancholy.  “To actually see more of Avrale.”

“It is a shame, though I do love returning to Broken Hill,” Marline mused.

“How was your time in South Rook?” Katrisha asked.

“Lovely,” Maraline said with a knowing smile.  “I find the urge to walk, would either of you care to join me?  I’ll tell you more.”

“I think I shall finish my book,” Kiannae answered.

“I thought you wished to see more of Avrale?” Maraline chided.

“I’m well acquainted with the castle, the rest of this book seems less familiar territory,” Kiannae countered with a laugh.

“You’ve already read that one,” Katrisha cut back.

“Still, less familiar,” Kiannae said a bit tersely.

“I’ll come,” Katrisha offered.  “Since my sister is growing roots in the ground.”  Kiannae scrunched her nose up at the characterization, but returned to her book.

“Well, come along then,” Maraline said, getting up, and straightening herself.

Katrisha give her sister a quick hug, and hurried after the princess, towards the north rampart.

“It really was a lovely trip,” Maraline said as Katrisha caught up.  “A caravan was in town, with a woman in charge of all things.  I’ve so rarely gotten to go down when the caravans come through Brokhal, and that was a treat to see a woman bossing around all those scruffy old traders.”

“Samantha?” Katrisha asked with piqued interest.

“I believe so,” Maraline said with some surprise.  “I only got to speak with her briefly, she was very busy.”

“I’m guessing you did not catch her last name,” Katrisha said with a wry smile.

“I do not believe I did, no,” Maraline said with curiosity.  “Her first would have slipped my mind entirely had you not known it.  How did you?”

“Did neither Kiannae or I ever tell you?” Katrisha asked a bit at a loss.

“I am uncertain what,” Maraline considered, “so please do.”

“Her last name is Peregrine,” Katrisha said with a laugh.

“As in,” Maraline seemed quite amused, and stifled a laugh, “our dear Mercu?”

“Oh yes,” Katrisha said.  “Seems he was to inherit the troupe, and wanted nothing of it.  Apparently his sister has never quite forgiven him.”

“Forgiven him?” Maraline seemed bewildered by the idea, and stopped at the steps that lead up the outside of the north wall.

“Oh yes,” Katrisha said.  “How would you feel if your brother, suddenly, and quite without sufficient warning advocated the kingdom to you?”

“Me, Queen?” Maraline laughed, but she seemed vaguely pleased by the idea.

“With all the petty squabbles that come with it,” Katrisha redirected.

“Mortified, I suppose,” Maraline acknowledged, and started up the steps.

“And there are not a great many Queens who actually reign, are there?” Katrisha added.

“No, that does sound tiresome.”

“There are fewer women among the trade princes,” Katrisha noted.  “So while I am sure she is quite happy to be rich, and defy convention.  It has been a load of hassle for her, and the perfect excuse to berate her older brother when they meet.”

“Ah, now that alone sounds worth it,” Maraline said with good humor.

“What has Adrian done to irk you?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Nothing polite to speak,” Maraline said conspiratorially.

“Then I wish to hear it all the more.”  Katrisha laughed.

“You are terrible,” Maraline said in good humor.  “Still, no, no.  It is only a suspicion, somewhere I have seen his eye turn that I do not approve, and I would not forgive myself for speaking it aloud.”

“Are you certain?” Katrisha pressed.

“Yes, quite,” Maraline said, becoming thin lipped, and turned to look out over the forest far below.

“Speaking of where eyes turn,” Katrisha said stepping away from the topic the princess would not broach further.  “How did your trip to South Rook go beyond unknowingly meeting Mercu’s sister?”

“Spectacularly,” Maraline said with thinly restrained excitement.

“How so?” Katrisha asked, and hopped up onto the parapet beside her.

“I do think he truly likes me,” the princess said looking up at her less dignified younger friend, who thought nothing of having gotten up, and sitting there without a care.  She was a bit jealous of that, the carefree lack of restraint Katrisha often showed.

“Did you kiss?” Katrisha asked.

“What, no, no,” Maraline blushed.  “Nothing so forward, but we walked, we talked,” she grabbed Katrisha’s hand excitedly where it lay on the parapet, “we held hands!”

“So, just as we have done today?” Katirsha teased.  “Are we now to be engaged?”

The princess looked down at the hand she had grabbed, and released it turning a bit crimson.  “You are terrible,” she laughed.

“That is becoming something of a refrain,” Katrisha noted.  “Yet you seem amused.”

Another laugh.  “It means so much more for a young man and woman.  We are friends, dear Katrisha.  Lukus is a charming young, man and a suitor.  It means so much more.”

“As you say, I am glad you are happy,” Katrisha said with a smile.

“So very,” Maraline nodded.

Katrisha seemed thoughtful a moment.  “I’ve not heard word of a caravan coming into Brokhal.  Surely Samantha was headed north next?”

“West actually, I believe,” Maraline said, “to Wesrook.”

“That should mean they will come through Brokhal sometime soon then,” Katrish noted.

“I would think,” Maraline agreed.

“I must press Mercu about this,” Katrisha laughed.  “Can’t have him avoiding his sister again.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 20th, 642 E.R.

“He road it…”  Laurel looked befuddled staring at the note that had been handed to him.

“What?” Mercu asked not following at all.

“He road the light forsaken dragon.”

“What!?” Mercu repeated wide eyed.

“Either Jeoffery has lost all sense, someone has fooled with the communication, or prince Vharen has literally flown off on the back of a black dragon into the western mountains of Osyrae.”

“So he’s seeking the favor of the General then, not the Queen,” Mercu said rubbing his forehead, and trying to pluck something sensible from an otherwise absurd statement.

“I guess, it makes as much sense as anything.  The dragon was captured in the north.  Evens out the potential insult.  Not that anything makes sense.”

“Surely the stunt won’t work.  Maybe he will wind up dead?”

“I’m not fully sure that will even be that much of an improvement.  He road the dragon for abyss sake.  Who…how?  There is no record of anyone – ever – riding a dragon.  Let alone a feral one.”

“I’ve heard some stories out of Napir.  One of Roshana’s younger daughters, very fond of a certain monk.  I mean it is just a story, but yes.  It is hard to believe.”

“It is far beyond hard to believe, it is terrifying.  It is tantamount to recognition.  It would fit with the claims that much of the black flight was bound to the blood of Vhale.  It hints at a birthright for him to make claim to the flight.  If he does that…even if he doesn’t.  If Vharen is instead killed for posing as a proper heir, if he is just too clever for his own good, then…”

“Then the old stalemate will tear Osyrae apart.  The throne will be vacant, the General and Queen will fight over the capital, and Osyrae will not pose an immediate danger to anyone, but themselves.”

“Maybe…”  Laurel passed the note to Mercu, “but what do you make of this last bit?”

“The pawn that would be queen may yet be in play,” Mercu read half under his breath.  “I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Maybe he really has gone mad.”  Laurel shook his head.

“If the King has flown off into the sunset,” Mercu asked, “who is reigning in his stead?”

“His uncle,” Laurel said dourly, “as if Vharen was not bad enough.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 7th, 642 E.R.

A woman with long chestnut hair staggered slightly as a nine year old grabbed onto her without warning from behind, while calling her name.  “Samantha!”

“What, who, how?” she growled as she tried to catch sight of the interloper, and caught two vaguely familiar green eyes staring up at her.

“You grew your hair back out,” Mercu said walking up behind the scene with an identical girl in tow.

“And I didn’t even have to guilt you into coming down this time?” Samantha asked a bit incredulously, and patted Katrisha on the head.

“No, that one took care of it for you,” he said nodding to the girl still hugging Samantha’s side.  “Seems she’s fond of you.  Fates know why.”

“So to which one do I owe the honor?” Samantha asked.

“That would be Kat,” Kiannae offered.  “Though I’m quite happy to see you as well.”

“Well then get over here,” Samantha gestured, and Kiannae obliged to accept a hug as well.  “My you two have grown,” Samantha said when the two relented to let her go.  “It’s only been a year hasn’t it?”

“Roughly,” Mercu nodded.  “I didn’t expect you to be back through so soon.”

“Me either,” Samantha agreed, “and I’m regretting trading routes already.”

“So you’ve heard?” Mercu pressed.

“About the bloody dragon?  Of course I’ve heard,” she growled.

“Not at all relieved to hear it’s flown off to the west then?” Mercu laughed.

“Not particularly,” Samantha sighed.  “Though thanks for the confirmation on that part.  I’ve no desire to be in Osyrae if that all goes sideways for them.”

“Not the most pleasant proposition, no,” Mercu agreed.

“So you buying me a drink again?” Samantha laughed.

“After last time?” Mercu chided.

“Fine, come into my wagon then,” Samantha shrugged, “but you are paying me for the bottle.”

Samantha peaked into wagon curiously for a moment, sighed, and then climbed in with the others behind her.  It somehow seemed even more cramped, and packed than the year before, and something red shifted on the bed in the back.

“Back already dear?” came the yawning voice of a young woman in a red robe, and with hair almost to match, who rolled over, stretched, and stood up, rolling her shoulders.

“I’m not your dear, you troublemaker,” Samantha cut back.

Mercu stood in the door to the wagon for a moment, and looked confused.

“Oh, who’s this handsome creature you’ve brought me?”  The woman laughed.

“My brother,” Samantha grumbled, “and his two little girls.”

“Ah, shame,” she pouted, and then laughed.

“Mercu, Sasha,” Samantha introduced.  “Best healer I’ve had in ten years, and most trouble I’ve had since you exiled yourself.  Sasha, my brother, the only person to ever cause me more trouble than you.”

“Charmed,” Mercu said uncertainly, suddenly wondering if risking another trip to the Grey Lamb would have been the safer choice.

Sasha squeezed past Samantha, who jumped slightly at something unseen.  The redhead threw her arms around Mercu.  “Nice to meet you.  Any brother of this darling woman is surely marvelous company.”

“Nice to meet you too,” Mercu said with more reservation than anyone present had seen him show – particularly regarding a lovely younger woman.

She peeked around Mercu, and gave Katrisha and Kiannae a very curious look, and then nudged past him to kneel down infront of them.  “You two,” she began curiously.  “You are an interesting pair.  Such bright auras, green eyes,” she tilted her head to the side considering Kiannae’s at length.  “You are Wren’s sisters, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” both answered in unison, and with some surprise.

“Did you tell her?” Mercu asked curiously.

“No,” Samantha looked a bit confused.  “I’ve barely mentioned you.  She is from the cloister though, up north.  I met Wren myself when I was passing through.”

“Yes,” Sasha said considering the girls curiously for a moment.  “I know Wren, though only really in passing.  Interesting little boy.  Strange to see the male of a line with so much stronger of an aura, but I’ve heard the rumors of how that came to pass.”

Katrisha looked a bit cross, and Kiannar frowned.

“Ah, yes,” Sasha said.  “Sorry, that was rather callous of me.  My condolences, I apologise.”  She stood up.  “Well, sit, sit everyone.  I’ll grab a bottle.”  Samantha glared at her for being presumptuous.  “On me of course, dear, take it out of my pay.”

“Mercu is paying,” Samantha countered.  “And I’m not you dear.”

“If the lady wishes to pay,” Mercu offered, and at a single sidelong glance from his sister started fishing through his coin purse.  He flipped her a silver coin.  She perked a brow pointedly, and he flipped her another.

“Good enough,” Samantha said, and took a seat.

Sasha slipped past Mercu again, and he suddenly had a guess as to what had made Samantha jump before, and stared a bit bewilderedly at a flash of the girls yellow eyes.  He took a seat opposite his sister, and looked at her in a way that begged answers.  Her returned glare if anything simply said he had no right to be giving her such a look.

“Sasha,” Samantha began as the twins attempted to squeeze in next to Mercu, and Katrisha found she had to sit next to Samantha instead.  “She struck something of a bargain I couldn’t refuse.  That left her without proper accommodations on the trip between Napir, and Niven.  Too many goods to be moved.  I relented, somewhat reluctantly, with no other option but to permit her to stay in my wagon for the trip.”

“Niven is quite a ways south,” Mercu noted.

“Yes it is,” Samantha agreed, as a bottle was set on the table, and three glasses.

“How she managed to strike the bargain in Niven, to move even more goods to Wesrook I am not sure.  I could have sworn she never left the Caravan.”  Samantha added.  “Again she made a convincing case for sharing arrangements, and that the bargain was again too good to pass up.”

“Very convincing,” Mercu acknowledged with a somber nod, “I’m sure.”

Sasha was grinning silently, like the cat that ate the canary as she opened the bottle with a pop, and poured.  Mercu glanced up at her, and then across at Katrisha, and down at Kiannae, who both seemed – to his liking – a bit confused.  Not that he had any strong objects to explaining, but he felt that Laurel might be more than a bit cross on the matter.

“Now mind you,” Mercu noted.  “Wesrook is rather a ways west.”

“Yes,” Samantha said, “and someone misspoke thinking we had open space for passengers.”

“Was that a problem?” Sasha asked.  “They did agree to pay very well.”

“For passage all the way to Mintercreek,” Samantha said tight lipped.

“So nothing unusual,” Mercu nodded, playing along, hiding his own amusement.

“I assure you,” Samantha said, “that I have been up to no mischief.  I can speak for no one else in this wagon.”  She gestured about exaggeratedly.

“We haven’t been up to mischief,” Katrisha protested, and got a funny look from Mercu.

“Well, there was that orb that went flying through open court last week,” Kiannae admitted.  “Still an accident, it should have expired before then…it was Katrisha’s any way.”

“Oh, I’m sure you two will get around to it,” Sasha said with a laugh, and took one of the glasses.

“They are nine,” Mercu noted, somewhat sternly, then debated the wisdom of his protest in the thin hope the girls were still ignorant of the subtext.

“I was eleven,” Sasha said with a perked brow, and took a sip.  She eyed Mercu over her glass in a way that made even him glance away.

Samantha took more than a bit of a sip herself at that.

“To mischief, still fun even one way,” Sasha offered a toast.  Samantha turned almost as red as the younger woman’s hair, and Mercu struggled to keep a straight face as he took a glass, and consented to look back up, and clink his to Sasha’s.

Samantha stewed for a moment.

“It’s not polite not to clink glasses,” Kiannae offered unhelpfully, and Samantha gave a wounded glance to the girl, before relenting to do so.

“We don’t have anything to toast with,” Katirsha offered, also unhelpfully.  “Not that we really like wine.”

“I don’t think the two of you need toast to mischief,” Mercu said matter of factly – on several levels – and took a drink.  The others did in turn, Samantha drank enough to need refilling.  Which Sasha did without asking.

“Not that I have any interest to further navigate this matter,” Mercu said tentatively.  “But I’m surprised you invited us in, given you knew you had a gust.”

“My fault,” Sasha offered.  “I’d gone out earlier, and I don’t think Sam noticed me come back.”

“I had not,” Samantha concurred, and took another drink.

“So what are your plans,” Mercu launched into, quite ready to change the subject.

“The plans had been to follow the course north through Osyrae,” Samantha said.  “With events there though…”

“The alternative?” Mercu pressed.

“That would be the east road,” Katrisha answered.

“Unless she plans to double back,” Kiannae countered.

“No good options,” Samantha agreed.

“There has been no sign of further activity on the east road, nor in the forest,” Mercu offered.

“And you would like your own sister to test that, would you?” Samantha asked tersely.  “You seemed pleased I wasn’t last time.”

“I would like no one to have to test that,” Mercu offered kindly.  “Still, I think it will let me plead a far more personal case for what the King would surely offer you any way.”

“A full escort?” Samantha asked hopefully.

“A large one even,” Mercu added.  “Anything to get trade moving on that road again.  One attack, however brutal, and that further even managed to run the bandits afoul of the Sylvans, has shut down trade with Helm completely.  Osyrae has little interest in our goods, and caravans coming from the south have been picked clean of most of what we want.”

“Plead your case then,” Samantha said.  “If I get the escort, I’ll make the run.  The profits will be worth it.  Assuming of course I can get a replacement healer, or keep the current one on.”

“I maintain,” Sasha said, “that I can be convinced.”

“Will it take more than a circuit out through Mordove, Lycia, and Palentia to convince you?” Samantha asked incredulously.

“Tempting,” Sasha laughed.  “I’m sure you can think of something.”

“I like her,” Mercu laughed.

“You would,” Samantha cut back.

“She seems nice enough,” Katrisha offered with some confusion.

“Oh, you are darling to say so,” Sasha said leaning over to pat the girl on the head with a smile.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 20th, 642 E.R.

“Confirmation,” Laurel shook his head.  “After months of the capital left in the hands of his hardliner uncle…  Yet…no declarations, no fanfare.”

“You are babbling,” Mercu offered unhelpfully.

“Vharen has returned.  After riding off on a dragon.  No big show, no grand pronouncement, just back to business as usual…or whatever you can call that state of affairs.  Just nothing.”

“So the flight rejected him, nicely?” Mercu considered incredulously.

“I guess?”  Laurel ran his fingers through his hair.  “I mean there was a report that he was possibly seen back, and brooding over a week before this was sent.  I just don’t know what to make of it.  I want to take it all as a good sign, but this whole chain of events…seeking to capture a dragon, succeeding, and flying off into the actual sunset on it.  All this grandiose, unprecedented insanity…and now…nothing.”

“Hard to trust, I agree.”

“More troop movements, but none to our border.  Most north, some west – more enforcement along the forest border.  I think he may take one of the free cities, but they, just like the north…the Council will do nothing.”

Mercu grabbed Laurel by the shoulders, gave him a soft shake, and Laurel looked up, still bewildered.

“This is good news, such as good news comes these days.  There really isn’t anything to second guess, for now.”

“You are right.”  Laurel shook his head.  “I will compose this information for the Council, and send the message.  Then…” he laughed a bit darkly, “then I think I will sleep for a week, or until the surprise dragon attack burns the castle to the ground.”

“Good plan.”  Mercu nodded, and then was thoughtful a moment.  “Were there no more cryptic passages about pawns, and queens?”

“No – but he did say something about a shadow, a thief that goes unseen.”  Laurel shook his head.

“I hate to think that maybe we should pull him out of there.”

“I am getting concerned, as is the King.”  Laurel sighed, and set the message aside.

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